Every team has issues to address this offseason, and this week we’re taking a look at the most glaring holes for each ACC team and figuring out where they might find answers between now and the season opener.

Duke Blue Devils

Position to improve: Defensive line.

Why it was a problem: Duke has to work harder than most every other school in the ACC at getting big guys up front who can blow their opponents off the ball. Run defense continues to be an issue for the Blue Devils, who took a step back in this category in 2014. Duke ranked No. 13 in the ACC and No. 92 in the nation in rush defense, giving up an average of 192.9 yards per game. Six times opponents rushed for over 200 yards; twice for over 300 yards. As a related stat, Duke did step up its sack production (29) but ranked No. 107 in the nation in tackles for loss, with only 4.7 per game. Its starting defensive linemen combined for just 20. That stat in particular shows the Blue Devils had a tough time getting into the opposition's backfield to make some plays. Duke had three new starters up front in 2014, so a transition period was to be expected. Still, this is an area Duke would love to see improved moving forward.

How it can be fixed: Duke needs to find and establish some rush ends who can help wreak havoc in the backfield, both on the passer and opposing ball carrier. Stability on the interior of the line is key, too. What will be interesting to see is the direction coach David Cutcliffe goes in hiring a defensive line coach after Rick Petri left following four seasons on the job. Might not be a bad idea to start fresh here.

Early 2015 outlook: Duke loses another three starters from its defensive line, with defensive tackle Carlos Wray the lone returner in the group. The Blue Devils are especially thin at defensive end, with seniors Kyler Brown and Britton Grier the lone returners among the top five players on the two-deep from 2014. Returning tackles A.J. Wolf and Mike Ramsay will be expected to step up. There are two redshirt freshmen to keep an eye on as well: Edgar Cerenord and Quaven Ferguson.

Recruit breakdown: DE Arden Key 

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What he brings: Arden Key is a quick and rangy prospect capable of being a disruptive front-seven defender. He needs to continue to fill out his lengthy and lean frame, but he has begun to add some good size since his junior year and is wiry with better-than-expected strength for his build. At this stage he is best playing on the move and getting after the quarterback. The top 25 prospect possesses excellent first-step quickness and with his length can develop into a disruptive edge rusher. He can also be a factor in pursuit with his range, effort and ability to use good angles. He can play with a physical and fiery style, which he might need to control at times. Key needs to continue to physically develop to help him more consistently take on bigger blockers, but this is a talented and versatile prospect who could project and develop as a DE or 3-4 OLB.

The list of positions that need improvement at Iowa State is much longer than head coach Paul Rhoads would like to see.

The Cyclones need better play from just about every position on the roster if they hope to wash away the memories of their 2-10 season in 2014. ISU has a few playmakers on offense, including receivers Allen Lazard and D’Vario Montgomery, along with Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Kamari Cotton-Moya at safety and cornerback Nigel Tribune providing a talented pair in the Cyclones secondary. For Rhoads to get things turned around, the Cyclones need help in the trenches, starting with the defensive interior.

Position to improve: Defensive tackle

Why it was a problem: Dismissals and departures put the Cyclones behind the eight ball before the 2014 season even began with Rodney Coe and David Irving among the interior line options who were dismissed after the 2013 season. ISU turned to youth at the position with sophomores and freshmen, led by Mitchell Myers, manning the defensive tackle spot. The group struggled to be disruptive, finishing with a Big 12-worst 58 tackles for loss in 12 games.

How it can be fixed: The defensive tackle rotation should naturally improve with a year’s worth of experience under the belt of Myers, Vernell Trent and the remainder of the returning underclassmen at the position. Add ESPN JC50 defensive tackle Demond Tucker -- who turned down offers from Kansas State, TCU, Arizona State and others -- into the mix and the defensive tackle spot looks a lot stronger heading into 2015 than it did before the 2014 campaign.

Early 2015 outlook: It would take a major leap for ISU’s defensive tackles to become among the Big 12’s best but the group looks like it is on the road to providing a much-improved foundation for the Cyclones to build a defense around. If Tucker lives up to his recruiting hype and becomes a force in the middle, it would allow the young defensive tackles on the roster to gradually improve without being asked to be the anchors in the middle. Improved production from the Cyclones defensive tackles would be the first step toward an improved ISU defense.
We're examining one position that needs improvement this offseason for every Big Ten team. These areas may require an upgrade in talent or simply face a drop-off as a result of departing contributors.

Next on the list is the only team nationally to face both participants in the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship. Of course, we’re talking about the Michigan State Spartans.

Position to improve: Running back

Why running back could be a problem: Pretty obvious, isn’t it? The Spartans lose workhorse Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 40 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards over the past two seasons. Gone also is top backup Nick Hill, who gained 622 yards as a senior. Even with star QB Connor Cook and an experienced group of receivers -- minus Tony Lippett -- MSU values a strong running game. Experience is lacking.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): The Spartans have traditionally featured big-bodied backs. Next year looks no different. Delton Williams (6-foot-1, 228 pounds) returns as a junior after rushing for 316 yards and five scores. Gerald Holmes (6-0, 221) carried the football 15 times in his first year of action, and Madre London (6-1, 213) redshirted as a freshman out of Florida.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The name to know is L.J. Scott, a 6-1, 217-pound prospect from Hubbard, Ohio, who committed to the Spartans in July over offers from Ohio State, Alabama and others. He ranks 93rd in the ESPN 300, seventh among running backs, and was named one of 10 instant-impact recruits for 2015 by ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill.

Early 2015 outlook: The spring will provide an important chance to impress for Williams, Holmes and London, all of whom were well regarded as recruits, though none on the level of Scott. The Spartans redshirt most freshmen, though Williams played in 2013. Can Scott see the field? Probably, but MSU would be well served to find a solid option as Langford’s replacement before August. The best guess to open the season in the backfield is Williams.
Auburn’s defense was bad down the stretch. Everybody knows it. We’ve been over it on the SEC blog. It’s the reason Ellis Johnson was let go as defensive coordinator after just two seasons. Simply put, the Tigers couldn’t stop anybody.

So when choosing a position that needs improvement for this team in 2015, it was pretty clear which side of the ball to focus on. But where does the problem lie?

The linebackers were the strength of the group, and both Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy are coming back, so not there. The defensive line had its inconsistencies and failed to generate a pass rush all season. But the real culprit was on the back end, a secondary that got torched time and time again in SEC play.

Position to improve: Secondary

Why it was a problem: In the last six league games, Auburn’s defense allowed 1,722 passing yards. That’s 287 yards per game. During that stretch, quarterbacks Dylan Thompson, Kyle Allen and Blake Sims all threw four or more touchdowns against the Tigers. It ultimately cost them wins against Texas A&M and Alabama. To be fair, it’s not all on the secondary. The lack of a pass rush makes it extremely difficult for the defensive backs. But this group got burned too many times. And there were too many missed tackles that turned good plays into explosive plays and sometimes touchdowns for the opposing offense. If you need further proof, just go back and watch Melvin Gordon’s 53-yard touchdown run in the Outback Bowl. He froze safety Jermaine Whitehead, and everybody else was out of position.

How it can be fixed: It starts with the offseason coaching changes. New defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was a safety in college and has a good track record with defensive backs. He brought with him his defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson, a former Auburn safety who has worked with the likes of Matt Elam, Jaylen Watkins and Vernon Hargreaves III during his time at Florida. The new coaches along with the new scheme should provide a boost on the back end. The first order of business will be to fix the missed tackles and the missed assignments. Then it’s on to coverage, which should be easier given the return of defensive end Carl Lawson and the possible addition of Byron Cowart, the nation’s No. 1 player. No longer will quarterbacks have all day to sit back and throw against this Tigers’ defense.

Early 2015 outlook: The cupboard isn’t bare. Auburn gets back top cornerback Jonathan Jones and safety Johnathan Ford, the team leader in tackles. For all the deficiencies in the secondary, Jones still finished among the SEC leaders in interceptions (6) and passes defended (12). Seniors Jonathon Mincy and Whitehead are gone, but the new coaches will have some young talent to work with next year. Freshmen Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin both played this season and should have an expanded role in 2015 while former ESPN 300 cornerback Kalvaraz Bessent will look to make an impact after redshirting his first year on campus. Also keep an eye on safety Tim Irvin. The four-star athlete recently flipped his commitment from Texas to Auburn and the staff believes he can make an early impact. Irvin enrolled last week.
It is about time ACC teams got creative with their schedules.

Because it is an absolute crying shame that two of the oldest rivals in the league are forced to go years between games. So, North Carolina and Wake Forest took matters into their own hands Monday, when the two announced they had scheduled a home-and-home NONconference series.

Does it sound bizarre? Yes. But it is no more bizarre than the schools playing just four times since 2004. We are talking about the two schools that played the first college football game in the state of North Carolina in 1888, that have met 105 times -- the third-oldest rivalry in the ACC.

Their annual meetings ended when the ACC expanded to 12 teams and added divisions in 2005. North Carolina was placed in the Coastal; Wake Forest in the Atlantic. They were each given another cross-over rival to play annually: North Carolina gets NC State; Wake Forest gets Duke. The remaining cross-over game rotates, relegating Wake Forest-North Carolina into the nearly irrelevant category.

Expansion to 14 teams in 2013 meant the two would face each other even more infrequently. After their ACC game in 2015, the two are not scheduled to face each other again until in ACC play until 2022. Seven years between meetings is a little much, wouldn't you say?

Now, this is not a problem unique to North Carolina and Wake Forest. NC State and Duke face a similar dilemma, separated by a bus ride but unable to play on an annual basis. Many more appealing league games also happen much too infrequently: Florida State-Georgia Tech; Clemson-Virginia Tech; Florida State-Virginia Tech; Syracuse-Miami just to name four examples that have some historical context.

Folks inside the ACC realize it is not ideal to have entire senior classes go without playing every ACC team. In an attempt to change that, athletic directors tried to move to nine conference games last year, an idea that was approved in 2012 before being changed back thanks to a scheduling partnership with Notre Dame.

But the vote was defeated 8-6. So absent a ninth conference game, ACC athletic directors began seriously exploring the idea of playing each other in “nonconference” games. During spring meetings last year, several athletic directors came out in favor of the idea. Not only would it allow them to play an ACC member more frequently, it also would add another Power 5 opponent to the schedule.

North Carolina and Wake Forest just so happen to be the first Power 5 teams to make good on the concept. Their nonconference games in 2019 and 2021 will not count in the ACC standings.

What is so wrong with that? Rather than go out and spend money on a guarantee game, Wake Forest and North Carolina can play each other in a regional matchup that requires a fleet of buses as opposed to airplane travel to say, Stillwater, Oklahoma.

It satisfies the requirement that they have at least one Power 5 nonconference opponent on the schedule moving forward. And it does not necessarily preclude them from playing multiple Power 5 opponents in a given year. In 2021, North Carolina plays Wake Forest and Notre Dame in nonconference games.

North Carolina and Wake Forest made a bold choice. They opted not to be held hostage by the way the ACC schedule is made. That is their reality, and it is one that is not going to change in the foreseeable future.

In an ideal world, the ACC should drop divisions entirely, that way everybody would have a chance to play at least once in a four-year cycle. Have each team keep its designated rival, and then go through the rest of the teams round robin. Before that can happen, the NCAA must rule whether it will allow conference championship games to be deregulated.

Currently 12 teams and two divisions are required to hold a championship game. The ACC and Big 12 have petitioned the NCAA to change that rule, and expect an answer in the spring. While commissioner John Swofford has repeatedly told reporters not to read anything into the ACC wanting conference championship game rules changed, it would pave the way to eliminate divisions somewhere down the road.

And that would lead to fewer scheduling headaches.
Every team has issues to address this offseason, and this week, we're taking a look at the most glaring holes for each ACC team and figuring out where they might find answers between now and the season opener.

Clemson Tigers

Position to improve: Running back

Why it was a problem: Clemson was a balanced offense in 2014, rushing an average of 39.3 times per game -- trailing only Georgia Tech, Boston College and Pitt in the ACC. The problem, however, was the success on those plays was limited. The Tigers averaged just 4.1 yards per carry on non-sack rushing attempts, which was the sixth-worst mark among Power 5 teams. The five teams that were worse finished a combined 19-42 for the season.

How it can be fixed: Clemson already started to see gains on the ground in the latter weeks of the 2014 season. Redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman stepped into the starting role and produced far better results, topping 100 yards in three of his last six games. Still, Clemson averaged just 4.5 yards per carry as a team during that stretch and converted less than 40 percent of its third-down attempts on the ground. Getting healthier should help those numbers though. Adam Choice, Tyshon Dye and Zac Brooks all missed significant time in 2014. Having a healthy Deshaun Watson at QB should make a difference, too. Cole Stoudt struggled to stretch the field with his arm, allowing opposing defenses to stack the box against the run. Watson, on the other hand, was one of the most dynamic downfield threats in the country. When defenses are forced to respect Watson's arm -- not to mention his scrambling ability -- there should be far more opportunities for the Tigers to move the ball on the ground.

Early 2015 outlook: As with so much of Clemson's 2015 outlook, a lot depends on the health of Watson at quarterback. When he was in the lineup in 2014, the Tigers looked dangerous on offense. When he wasn't, they struggled. He's recovering from a torn ACL this offseason, so his status for 2015 remains a bit unclear. But even if he's not 100 percent, there's reason to think Clemson's ground game should still take a step forward now that Gallman has a year of experience under his belt and the rest of the running backs figure to be healthier. The improved performance down the stretch in 2014 also offers plenty of room for optimism, and if Clemson's production on offense can be as balanced as its play calling was in 2014, the Tigers figure to have one of the ACC's most potent attacks.
This week, we're taking a look at one position that was a problem for each Big Ten team in 2014 and how they might fix it in 2015. Next up is Wisconsin.

Problem position: Wide receiver

Why wide receiver was a problem in 2014: We all know that Wisconsin's passing game wasn't very good in 2014, and the quarterback position was an area of trouble at times. But the lack of upper-echelon talent at wide receiver was even more glaring the season after Jared Abbrederis departed. The Badgers ranked just 12th in the Big Ten in passing offense, and averaged a pedestrian 11.6 yards per reception. Former walk-on Alex Erickson led the team with 55 catches for 772 yards, and the next most productive receiver was senior slot man Kenzel Doe, who had 17 catches for 197 yards. Tight end Sam Arneson, who was a big pass-catching weapon, has graduated.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Erickson will be back, and should remain the No. 1 option. Wisconsin will hope to get more out of Jordan Fredrick, who had 13 catches last season, and the disappointing duo of Reggie Love and Robert Wheelwright. Love scored on a 45-yard end around in the opener against LSU, then did almost nothing the rest of the season. Wheelwright's touchdown catch in the season finale against Minnesota was somehow his only reception of the year. A trio of rising sophomores -- George Rushing, Natrell Jamerson and Krenwick Sanders -- will be asked to contribute more, with Rushing looking like the most promising of the group.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): Not much, at least so far. Wisconsin has only one receiver committed in this year's class, and that's Andrew James from Fort Lauderdale, Florid. He's a three-star prospect, according to ESPN Recruiting.

Early 2015 outlook: One of the main priorities for new head coach Paul Chryst is developing the passing game, including the quarterbacks and receivers. Still, Wisconsin is unlikely to become Wide Receiver U any time soon. This is still an offense that will rely heavily on the run game and use its tight ends (Troy Fumagalli should step in for Arneson in '15) and tailbacks as receiving options. Yet the Badgers receivers are often open because opposing defenses pay so much attention to the run game, so they need to be much better than they were last season. If even one or two wideouts can step up to help Erickson, that would go a long way toward improving the entire offense.
Arkansas’ 2014 season was an encouraging one as the Razorbacks made a bowl game, delivered a statement in that bowl (a 31-7 thrashing of Texas in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl) and saw growth at a number of areas across the field. Make no mistake, this is a team that lives on power football. Balance is important, too, however, and we saw quarterback Brandon Allen take forward strides as did the receivers and tight ends in 2014. Taking even more steps forward in the passing game will be key to offensive improvement in 2015 as we continue our look at teams across the conference and what positions need improvement:

Position to improve: Receiver

Why it was a problem: The Razorbacks simply need more production from the position. Only two teams in the conference (Kentucky and Vanderbilt) had a team-leading receiver with fewer yards in 2014 than the Hogs (558). That’s partially by design because Arkansas is such a run-heavy team and teams have to focus on their strengths, which, for the Razorbacks, is their running backs and offensive line. Still, having a good passing game with productive receivers is important even for run-first teams because the threat of play-action passing down the field keeps opposing defenses honest and can help prevent them from stacking the box to stop the run. Arkansas heavily uses tight ends in its passing game and quite effectively: two of the three leading pass catchers in 2014 were tight ends. Still, the Razorbacks could use more quality depth at receiver.

How it can be fixed: Having leading receiver Keon Hatcher return for his senior season is important. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior is a talented weapon and led the team in receptions (43), receiving yards (558) and touchdown catches (six). Those numbers should only improve next season. Tight end Hunter Henry is one of the SEC’s best at his position and he returns next season as well to improve on his 37-catch, 513-yard season. If those two take strides forward (as well as quarterback Allen, who made a big improvement from 2013 to 2014) the passing game could be in good shape. As for the rest of the receivers, only one on the two-deep depth chart was a senior (Demetrius Wilson) meaning the Hogs return four of the five: Hatcher, sophomores Drew Morgan and Cody Hollister and freshman Jared Cornelius, who all caught passes last season. Kendrick Edwards, a 6-foot-6 freshman who caught four passes last season, also returns. Someone from that group of youngsters needs to step up and emerge into a more consistent, dependable target for Allen.

Early 2015 outlook: With Hatcher and Henry returning, things are looking up for the Arkansas receivers and tight ends. Hatcher is entering his senior season, while Henry will be a junior. Both have plenty of big-game experience under their belts. Hatcher made a jump from 27 catches in 2013 to 43 in 2014. Another similar statistical jump would be huge for the Hogs. If one of those other young returning receivers steps up, it will be a big help. At tight end, a position that has a key role in the passing game at Arkansas, Jeremy Sprinkle returns while the Hogs lose A.J. Derby. Arkansas has two ESPN 300 tight ends in its current recruiting class: C.J. O’Grady and Will Gragg. Gragg is a mid-year enrollee, so that gives him a chance to contribute quickly. Four-star receiver LaMichael Pettway and three-star receiver Deon Stewart comprise the Hogs’ receiver recruiting class for 2015, so more talent is on the way. The 2014 receiving corps (not including tight ends) accounted for 106 catches after accounting for just 30 in 2013, so significant improvement occurred. If it continues, it bodes well for Arkansas' passing game in 2015.
Just like Darrell Royal and Barry Switzer and Mike Leach, Art Briles is a coach blessed with the gift of gab.

"I'll fight a man with three children and a nice house any day over a man that's living out of a car,” Briles gloriously said after Baylor hung on to beat “desperate” Texas Tech in late November.

Recently, though, Briles has turned his rhetorical guns on the College Football Playoff.

Now, it’s about time he holsters them.

[+] EnlargeArt Briles
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesArt Briles continues to take shots at the CFP selection, but it's time to move on.
Initially, Briles’ choruses – "Let's get somebody,” he said of the selection committee, “that understands what fixin' means" – carried a certain charm. And, as they might say in Texas, held a little bit of water, too. Baylor, after all, went 11-1, won the Big 12 and with its 61-58 triumph over TCU, delivered the most impressive regular-season victory of any playoff contender.

Ohio State, however, nabbed the final spot instead. And on the same day Baylor squandered a 21-point fourth-quarter lead in a Cotton Bowl Classic loss to Michigan State, the Buckeyes toppled Alabama in the Sugar Bowl semifinal before moving on to dominate Oregon and capture the national championship. With their bowl performances, the Buckeyes and Bears ultimately revealed that the selection committee got it right with its final playoff pick.

But those postseason results haven’t slowed Briles from taking aim at the committee. And his latest charge was anything but charming.

Last week, unprompted, Briles claimed "a source" told him that the Bears fell short of the fourth and final playoff spot by "an 8-to-4 vote."

"We were close this year," he said. "We were an 8-to-4 vote getting in from the No. 4 spot. Whether that's public or not, I don't know, but it is now. Unless I'm getting bad information, and I won't give you my source."

Why Briles suddenly brought this up, I don’t know. But according to CFP executive director Bill Hancock, Briles’ source gave him some pretty bad information.

Hancock retorted that an 8-4 vote technically would have been impossible, given that the committee ranks teams in sets of threes, not head to head. On top of that, Hancock added all votes are taken via secret computer ballot. Not even the committee members know what the votes are.

“An 8-4 vote,” Hancock summarized, “would not be possible under the committee's protocol."

All that said, I believe Briles believes an 8-4 vote was taken. I also believe that someone of some stature told Briles an 8-4 vote was taken. Who knows, maybe an 8-4 vote actually was taken, at least in some sense? Maybe eight voters had Ohio State fourth, and four voters had Baylor fifth.

But at this point, what is the point?

Briles still deliberating on the playoff committee smacks of rotten cotton. Especially considering Ohio State blazed to the national title as Baylor collapsed against the Spartans, whom the Buckeyes, by the way, manhandled in East Lansing. In fact, the only Big 12 team to emerge from the bowl season looking playoff worthy was TCU, which finished 12-1 after annihilating Ole Miss 42-3 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. While Briles bemoaned the committee, Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs simply let their play do their talking.

Without a doubt, Briles is among the top coaches in the country. In one of the most impressive turnarounds ever to grace college football, Briles has whipped Baylor from conference doormat to perennial power. He’s also the best quote in the game this side of Steve Spurrier. But even as persuasive and charismatic as he is, Briles is not winning anyone over with his “we-got-snubbed” argument. And if he continues to hammer this nail, he risks losing credibility.

After back-to-back Big 12 championships, Baylor is past playing the victim card – or at least it should be. And instead of focusing on what could have been, it’s time for Briles and the Bears to turn their attention to what could be. After all, despite losing all-conference quarterback Bryce Petty, Baylor, with 17 returning starters, boasts another loaded squad capable of knocking on the playoff door again.

Briles got one more salvo in on the playoff.

Let's hope it's his last.
Arizona enjoyed a successful season, surprising many by winning the Pac-12 South and earning a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. There's still plenty of room for improvement in Tucson, so it's time to take a look at what the Wildcats can do better in 2015.

Position to improve: Depth. Yes, that's not a position in the traditional sense of the word, but that is the facet the Wildcats are most lacking. Arizona enjoyed a number of clutch end-of-game performances to help secure their 10-4 record, but they still struggled statistically against the Pac-12's fast-paced attacks because of general thinness on the defensive side of the ball. The team ultimately allowed 7.4 yards per pass attempt (94th in the nation) despite starting three capable fifth-year seniors in the secondary. That's a solid indication of fatigue.

Why it was a problem: Pac-12 offenses snap the ball frequently. Since Arizona's own attack is one of the many in the conference known for its speedy play, the Wildcats' defense is inevitably taxed. Anthony Gimino pointed out that Arizona defended 1,115 snaps this past season, the second-highest total in the nation. Despite this strenuous workload, only about 15 players saw regular defensive action.

How it can be fixed: Recruiting and continual player development are the keys here. Rodriguez inherited one of the worst defenses in program history after the 2011 season -- "bare cupboard" is an oft-used phrase to describe the state of the Wildcats at that time -- and it can take several years to amass enough talent when playing catch-up.

Early 2015 outlook: Arizona loses only Dan Pettinato along the defensive line, so there'll be a net influx of bodies in that crucial area. There's a tremendous amount of confidence emanating from the linebacker corps because of Wright -- and rightfully so (the guy is a monster). The defense will have to replace loads of proven experience in the secondary, but there is new talent coming in through the recruiting pipeline there. Junior college transfer Paul Magliore and incoming freshman Shun Brown are two names to watch. The Wildcats are trending upwards in regards to depth, but they must successfully develop as much talent as possible to pad the walls and see defensive improvement in 2015.

Position that needs improvement: Baylor

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This week, we're taking a closer look at one area in which each Big 12 team needs to make improvements going into the 2015 seasons. We kick off the series with Baylor, a team poised to make a run at its third consecutive Big 12 title. That run will get even easier if its secondary can raise its game this offseason.

Position to improve: Defensive backs

Why it was a problem: There were not many weaknesses with the 2014 Bears, so this might seem like nitpicking. But Baylor's secondary was maligned at times for its occasional struggles, particularly late in the season. Baylor finished with the No. 107 pass defense in FBS. Over its final six games, Baylor ranked dead last among Power 5 conference defenses in yards per completion (15.6) and third-worst in yards per attempt. They still won five of those six games, of course, so it wasn't exactly a damning flaw.

But Texas Tech made them sweat with 609 passing yards and Michigan State threw for 179 (20 yards per completion) in the fourth quarter of its Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic comeback. At various points in the season, each member of that relatively inexperienced secondary of Xavien Howard, Ryan Reid, Orion Stewart, Terrell Burt and Collin Brence was tested. They gave up 56 completions of 20-plus yards, third-worst of all Power 5 defenses. So there's room for improvement in 2015.

How it can be fixed: Experience. Every contributing member of this secondary is slated to return in 2015 except Brence, the starting nickel. Howard, Reid and Stewart will be juniors and Burt will be a senior. The top backups at corner -- Terrence Singleton and Tion Wright -- will be juniors. There are a handful of younger players that are coming along, too, and could push the vets.

What'll be interesting to track is how newly hired safeties coach Cris Dishman can influence this group. The former Pro Bowler will team with Carlton Buckels to coach the secondary and could bring some new ideas to the table to help Phil Bennett and this defensive staff. Then again, the best antidote might simply be more competition and another year of training.

On the recruiting front, Baylor has commitments from three intriguing cornerback prospects -- Jordan Tolbert, Tony Nicholson and Jameson Houston -- plus a four-star athlete in J.W. Ketchum who could become one heck of a safety. Baylor probably will take one more corner before signing day, too, but it's unlikely these freshmen will have to take on significant roles early. There's just too much talent coming back.

Early 2015 outlook: Expect those same corners and safeties to retain their jobs, unless someone rises up and beats out a veteran over the course of this offseason. Travon Blanchard, a third-year sophomore who played in every game in 2014, is the clear frontrunner to take over for Brence at nickel. And you'd hope to see a few underclassmen (maybe second-year DBs Chance Waz, Jourdan Blake and Verkedric Vaughns) step forward and prove they can be trusted with more snaps. With all those defensive backs returning, there's no reason why this group can't get better and eventually become one of Baylor's strengths.
Boston College exceeded expectations once again in Year 2 under Steve Addazio as the Eagles rode a potent rushing attack and a hard-nosed defense to a bowl performance. There will be a lot of turnover on offense, though, which means there is ample opportunity for a receiver to emerge.

Position to improve: Wide receiver.

Why it was a problem: There were not many receptions among the receivers last season, but that’s not a product of the receiving unit having played poorly. With Tyler Murphy and a stable of talented running backs, Addazio, the former offensive line coach, was intent on utilizing his team’s strength. The Eagles just didn’t throw the ball often. When they did throw, the Eagles weren’t overly explosive in the passing game. Shakim Phillips had an impressive 21.7 yards per catch, but it comes on only 13 receptions. Josh Bordner, who led the team with 27 catches, averaged 12.81 yards per reception, which ranked 19th in the ACC. Bordner and Phillips will not return in 2015, though. The receivers had a letdown in the loss to Clemson, too, as the Eagles dropped a potential game-winning touchdown pass.

How it can be fixed: The Eagles are not going to become a team predicated on the downfield pass, so it’s not as if there needs to be an overhaul at the position. It would obviously help open up running lanes and ease the pressure on quarterback Darius Wade if he can find a receiving security blanket and a consistent deep threat. Rising sophomore Sherman Alston already provides a nice spark, although he stands only 5-foot-6. A look at the receivers Addazio has recruited shows there is no set model; he recruits shorter, shiftier receivers and physical, bigger-bodied players. Any are capable of stepping up into a highlighted role.

Early 2015 outlook: Alston is a big catch waiting to happen, and he has already made quite the name for himself by making a handful of special plays. Dan Crimmins finished second on the team with 25 catches, and the 6-5, 237-pound rising senior has the frame to be a go-to option when the Eagles are in need of a first down. Charlie Callinan showed flashes of being a solid receiver in the Clemson loss. Addazio has done a very good job recruiting and putting together a complete team, so there should be reason for optimism.
As we inch toward spring practice, we're examining a potential problem position for each Big Ten team and what needs to get fixed in the coming months. These positions could be going through major personnel changes or simply need an upgrade in performance from the existing players or the incoming recruits/transfers.

First up, Ohio State. Believe it or not, the Buckeyes could improve at certain positions despite a national championship and what seems like a stronger roster returning.

Position to improve: Linebacker

Why linebacker was a problem in 2014: Problem is a strong word. Ohio State's linebackers didn't play poorly last season and stepped up during the championship run. But the Buckeyes were loaded up front and much improved in the back end, which made linebacker somewhat of a weak link. The Buckeyes surrendered 170 or more rush yards in five games and endured a three-game stretch in Big Ten play where they allowed 677 rush yards and nine touchdowns.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Ohio State returns young talent at linebacker to complement a solid veteran in Joshua Perry. Darron Lee developed into a star toward the end of his redshirt freshman season, finishing second on the team in tackles for loss (16.5) and sacks (7.5) and leading the team in fumbles recovered (3). Raekwon McMillan is an immense talent who should blossom as a true sophomore. The Buckeyes will look for more from Cam Williams and Chris Worley in 2015.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): Justin Hilliard is rated as the nation's No. 1 outside linebacker prospect by ESPN RecruitingNation and could make an early impact on the weak side. Jerome Baker, another ESPN 300 prospect and the nation's No. 7 outside linebacker, provides another option. Nick Conner could work his way onto the field at middle linebacker.

Early 2015 outlook: Lee's emergence late in the 2014 season gives Ohio State two solid options on the outside with Perry, who led the team with 124 tackles as a junior. If McMillan solidifies the middle, the Buckeyes should be fine with their starters. The key will be building depth with players like Williams, who can play in the middle or the outside, and possibly incoming freshmen like Hilliard.
Alabama’s overall defensive numbers this past season weren’t shabby. The Crimson Tide finished sixth nationally in scoring defense (18.4 points per game) and 12th nationally in total defense (328.4 yards per game).

But where they struggled was defending the pass. Opposing receivers made a habit of getting behind Alabama’s defensive backs and racking up far more big plays in the passing game than Nick Saban’s defenses have given up in the past. The Crimson Tide finished 11th in the SEC in passing defense. They allowed an average of 226 passing yards per game, the most they’ve surrendered in the Saban era, and their 19 touchdown passes allowed were the most since Saban’s first season in 2007.

Position to improve: Cornerback

Why it was a problem: Alabama was vulnerable to the deep ball, whether it was opposing receivers simply running past the Tide cornerbacks or outmaneuvering them to make big plays down the field. Go back to the Auburn game. The Tigers had receivers getting behind Alabama’s coverage all game and finished with 456 passing yards. In their final three games alone, the Crimson Tide gave up 15 completions of 20 yards or longer, including seven of 40 yards or longer. Opposing teams knew they could attack the Tide down the field.

How it can be fixed: It all works together on defense, and giving up big plays in the passing game is usually a two-way street of not getting enough pressure up front and not getting tight enough coverage on the back end. Alabama dialed up its pass rush this past season and finished fifth in the league with 31 sacks. It could still help itself, though, with even more edge pressure. Ultimately, it comes down to covering better at the cornerback positions, playing the ball better in the air and keeping the busted assignments to a minimum. This is not a new problem for the Tide, who’ve battled inexperience and inconsistency at cornerback each of the past two seasons. The good news is that everybody is back for 2015 and should be a year better. You can bet there will be some serious competition at the cornerback spot all spring and preseason. On all three of Alabama’s national championship teams under Saban, the Tide had elite cornerbacks. That wasn’t the case either of the past two seasons, and the jury’s still out for this coming season.

Early 2015 outlook: The development of true sophomore Tony Brown and redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey will be key for the Tide. Both were highly-rated players and have the skills to be the kind of cornerbacks Alabama is accustomed to having with some added experience. Rising senior Cyrus Jones was the most consistent of the bunch last season, and there’s some new blood coming in the 2015 class. Commitments Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick are two of the top four cornerback prospects in the country, according to ESPN. Cornerback needs to be one of the most improved positions on the team next season, particularly with the Tide losing their top three safeties.