Andrus Peat, No. 9 in 2012 class
Coming out of Corona Del Sol in Tempe, Arizona, Peat’s recruitment was considered a toss-up with many predicting Nebraska early on because his brother, Todd Peat, played for the Cornhuskers at the time. While Peat officially visited Nebraska, his recruitment actually came down to Stanford, USC and Florida State along with Nebraska. Peat was part of a terrific offensive line class for Stanford with Joshua Garnett, Kyle Murphy and Nick Davidson.
Peat made his mark as a freshman for the Cardinal, playing in 13 games. He rotated at left tackle in 2012, playing more snaps as the season moved along.
As a sophomore in 2013, Peat began showing that he had a NFL future. He started all 14 games at left tackle, earning All-Pac-12 second-team honors from the league coaches, as well as Stanford’s Most Outstanding Sophomore Deswarte-Ellar Award.
Peat’s junior season would prove to be his best. After starting every game at left tackle for a second consecutive season, he was tabbed All-Pac-12 first team by the league coaches as well as numerous All-American teams by media outlets, including second team by the AP.
Peat chose to forgo his senior season and enter the 2015 NFL Draft, where he is expected to be drafted in the first round.
Honorable mention: Jimmy Clausen, No. 9 in 2007 class. Clausen played at Notre Dame and was drafted in the second round (No. 48 overall) in the 2010 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. Jelani Jenkins, No. 9 in 2009 class. Jenkins starred at Florida and was drafted in the fourth round (No. 104 overall) by the Miami Dolphins in the 2013 NFL Draft. Matt Elam, No. 9 in 2010 class. Elam played a Florida and was drafted No. 32 overall in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens. Derrick Henry, No. 9 in 2013 class, and Adoree' Jackson, No. 9 in 2014 class are both starring in college and expected to be drafted in the next two years.
Penn State takes its turn in the spotlight now.
Problem position: Offensive line
Why the offensive line was a problem in 2014: Everyone who followed the Nittany Lions worried about the O-line going into the season. Miles Dieffenbach suffered an injury in the offseason that would keep him sidelined most of the year, leaving left tackle Donovan Smith as the only experienced player on the unit. Depth was so thin that coach James Franklin and his staff had to flip a couple defensive tackles over to the offensive guard spots. The problems ended up being worse than just about anyone imagined, as Penn State fielded the league's worst rushing attack (101.9 yards per game) and gave up an almost unfathomable 44 sacks, which was more than every Power 5 team except Wake Forest. For comparison's sake, the 44 sacks were more than Michigan State, Wisconsin and Rutgers combined to allow in 2014. The line woes were encapsulated by this unforgettable image.
How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Smith played well despite the chaos and chose to enter the NFL draft rather than use his final year of eligibility. Dieffenbach, who missed the first eight games last season, also departs. Andrew Nelson showed promise as a redshirt freshman at right tackle and could move to the left side. Angelo Mangiro and Brian Gaia join him as returning starters. Penn State also redshirted four offensive linemen last season and will hope at least a couple of them are ready to contribute in 2015.
How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The Nittany Lions currently have four offensive linemen committed in this year's class, three of whom are in the ESPN 300: tackles Sterling Jenkins and Ryan Bates and guard Steven Gonzalez. The fourth is a junior college transfer: 6-foot-8, 300-pounder Paris Palmer, who could step in and start right away.
Early 2015 outlook: Franklin and position coach Herb Hand know offensive line is a major problem right now, and they have worked to address that in recruiting. Scholarship cuts from NCAA sanctions and injuries hit the unit hard, but help appears to be on the way. The line looks to be incredibly young in 2015, however, so some quick development will be needed to better protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg and establish a more reputable run game.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Position to improve: Secondary
Why it was a problem: North Carolina had issues all over the defense in 2014, but it was particularly vulnerable to the pass. No Power 5 team in the country allowed more yards per attempt (8.5), only Baylor and Fresno State surrendered more plays of 25 yards or more through the air, and only six teams nationally allowed more passing touchdowns (31).
How it can be fixed: The Tar Heels' biggest issue in the secondary may have simply been youth. There was just one senior -- safety Tim Scott -- on the team's two-deep, and the Heels started three sophomores in the defensive backfield. UNC finished 88th in sack rate, too, and the lack of pressure up front certainly didn't help the secondary. The pass rush did show some improvement as the year went along, and emerging stars such as Nazair Jones and Dajaun Drennon should continue to make an impact in 2015. The big change, however, is the man calling the plays. UNC hired former Auburn coach Gene Chizik to take over the defense, and his hard-nosed style promises to translate to a more fundamentally-sound secondary.
Early 2015 outlook: North Carolina should improve defensively in 2015 if for no other reason than it would be virtually impossible to be any worse. Still, it's going to be an uphill battle. Young players are going to need to take big steps forward this offseason, and it remains to be seen how Chizik's personality and style will mesh with the players already on the roster. The Heels have two four-star DBs committed, but adding more youth to the mix isn't necessarily an ideal scenario. Moreover, Larry Fedora's offense moves at lightning speed, and the result of that was that no defense in the country spent more time on the field in 2014 than UNC. That's asking a lot of a group that is young, lacks depth and had fundamental flaws routinely exposed. How much of that can Chizik clean up in 2015? How much might Fedora try to adjust his offensive pace to account for some of those defensive shortcomings? How much can the youngsters grow in one offseason? We may not have those answers for quite a while.
Position to improve: Defensive line. For the first time in several years, Stanford loses all its starters from the backbone of its defense -- Henry Anderson, David Parry and Blake Lueders are all gone. The Cardinal reloaded admirably following last season's departure of defensive star power, but they didn't have to replace all of their front-line strength. This is a new -- and perhaps more daunting -- challenge.
Why it was a problem: Parry, in particular, carried a massive part of the defensive load in 2014. The 305-pound lineman absorbed frequent double-teams, and that disrupted opposing offenses while opening things up for the rest of the Stanford defense. But Parry missed some time because of injury, and the otherwise dominant Cardinal defense immediately struggled (remember their troubles against Arizona State and Oregon). That's because Stanford's depth behind Parry was severely lacking -- a combination of bad luck (see Ikenna Nwafor's career-ending foot injury) and recruiting misses meant that true freshman Harrison Phillips, still about 40 pounds underweight for the position, was forced into premature action. With Parry and his fellow fifth-year senior starters now gone, Stanford's suspect defensive line depth is naturally shifting into the starting spotlight, so the need for improvement there is urgent.
How it can be fixed: This is a particularly critical offseason for revered sports performance director Shannon Turley and defensive line coach Randy Hart. If Stanford is going to have enough capable bodies to maintain success up front, Turley and Hart must succeed in further developing rising sophomores Phillips and Solomon Thomas, both of whom were touted recruits. They'll also have to maximize the productivity of seniors Aziz Shittu and Luke Kaumatule, two physical specimens who haven't yet blossomed to their full potential.
Early 2015 outlook: The Cardinal are in a precarious situation. They've developed many players remarkably well in the past several years, but they've also missed on some, and there's absolutely no margin for error in the defensive line room this offseason. This unit forms the bedrock of Stanford's 3-4 scheme, and it's losing a trio of fifth-year stalwarts who have provided toughness and blue-collar continuity within the program since the Jim Harbaugh days. The optimist will see this as a true opportunity for a new crop of trench talent to establish itself as the Cardinal's backbone at the line of scrimmage; the pessimist will predict that Stanford's well of beefy talent is running dry. This offseason will determine who's right, as the improvement of the Cardinal's defensive line talent represents a true hinge point.
That last line of defense wasn't nearly as dependable as it needed to be, whether it was making key tackles that could have prevented big gains or preventing opposing receivers from getting behind the coverage.
Position to improve: Safety
Why it was a problem: The Bulldogs were 114th nationally in passing defense, giving up 272.8 yards per game. It's true that their pressure style put the defensive backs in some tough spots, but too many times big gains turned into backbreaking gains or even touchdowns. In losing three of their last four games, the Bulldogs allowed 13 plays of 30 yards or longer in those three losses. Nine of the 13 were passing plays. Even in the loss to run-heavy Georgia Tech in the bowl game, the Bulldogs gave up a 41-yard touchdown pass to go down 14-0 and were later burned on a 69-yard touchdown run. Losing junior safety Kendrick Market to a torn Achilles in the first quarter against Ole Miss didn't help matters, and Justin Cox never developed into the kind of difference-maker the Bulldogs thought he would be when he came over from junior college. What's more, senior safety Jay Hughes was coming back from an Achilles injury that forced him to miss the final 12 games of the 2013 season.
How it can be fixed: The outlook overall in the secondary is better than some might think. In fact, the Bulldogs should be fairly strong at cornerback, which will only help as they sort out matters at safety. Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond both return for their senior seasons at cornerback, and Redmond was playing as well as any of the Mississippi State defensive backs when the season ended. The Bulldogs will also get back Cedric Jiles, who missed all of last season with a hamstring injury. He's the kind of speedy athlete who will find his way onto the field somewhere in the secondary. Deontay Evans and Kivon Coman will both be juniors. They both played some this season, but will be counted on to move into bigger roles.
Early 2015 outlook: Manny Diaz is back as Mississippi State's defensive coordinator. He headed up the Bulldogs' defense in 2010 and was renowned for the way he attacked offenses with an array of different blitzes. To play that way, you're obviously vulnerable in the secondary at times, which means solidifying the safety spots will be critical. Market, coming off his torn Achilles, probably won't be fully recovered for the start of the season. It's a big offseason for redshirt freshman Brandon Bryant. The Bulldogs almost pulled his redshirt this past season. He has a nose for the ball and anticipates well. Evans and Coman will also factor prominently into the rotation, and one of the biggest names on the recruiting board is Jamal Peters, the No. 2 safety prospect in the country and a Mississippi State commitment. Several other schools are still in hot pursuit. The 6-3, 200-pound Peters is a big-time tackler and could help the Bulldogs immediately.
Moving in at No. 3 overall is former TCU defensive end Devonte Fields. The former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year is spending the school year at Trinity Valley Community College, and appears ready to make the move back to the FBS ranks and play one more season before entering the 2016 NFL draft. Fields is scheduled to visit Louisville Jan. 30 with the Cardinals the heavy favorite to land the Under Armour All-American Game alumni.
Here are our favorite plays of the year:
Hail MarysBahamas Bowl miracle
Central Michigan trailed by 35 points entering the fourth quarter. It trailed by seven when it pulled off a 75-yard, three-lateral Hail Mary as the clock struck :00. The Chippewas failed on the two-point conversion, but their comeback and miracle finish was the craziest play of bowl season.
After blowing a 26-9 fourth-quarter lead, it looked as if Central Florida was done. But East Carolina mismanaged the clock -- taking three knees and a sack -- before giving the ball back to the Knights with 10 seconds left. One 51-yard score later, George O'Leary's crew was celebrating a share of a conference championship.
Arizona scored an absurd 36 points in the fourth quarter, capped by Anu Solomon hitting Austin Hill in the end zone on a 47-yard touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 49-45 win.
Big-guy touchdownsCome to Arkansas, where linemen throw TDs
Who said Bret Bielema offenses were old school? Arkansas' coach loves his linemen, and here he lets 350-pound guard Sebastian Tretola throw for a score in a 45-17 win over UAB.
Tretola's pass was nice, but how about seeing a 400-pounder go up the seam for an 18-yard score in a New Year's Six bowl game? That's what Art Briles and Baylor dreamed up, as Laquon McGowan scored to give Baylor a 20-point lead before Michigan State stormed back to win 42-41.
Boise goes back to the future
Everyone remembers Boise State's introduction to a national college football audience, upsetting Oklahoma with the Statue of Liberty in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Well, the Broncos brought it back for this year's game, as Jay Ajayi scored from 16 yards out in a 38-30 Boise win.
Fainting Goat gets its own category
Arkansas State can lay claim to the best worst fake punt ever. In theory, one player falls down, draws the attention of the defense and the Red Wolves get a first down. In reality, he got clobbered and Arkansas State's pass was intercepted. But that only made us love it more.
So does this Nebraska false start
Poor Jake Cotton. The Nebraska lineman was just trying to hold his stance, but once all 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds of him starting going backward, there was no turning back.
Year of the freshman RBLeonard Fournette runs over Texas A&M
It was an up-and-down year for the heavily hyped Fournette, but he certainly showed signs of why such big things were expected out of him. Just ask Howard Matthews, who got bowled over on Fournette's way to the end zone in LSU's 23-17 win.
Florida State had fallen behind again. This time, it was 23-10 to rival Miami. But Cook saved the day, with 44- and 26-yard scores to guide the Seminoles to a 30-26 victory.
Freeman could be a game-changer for the Ducks, the kind of every-down power back the team hasn't had in the past. And he can throw it too, as he proved with this touchdown toss to Marcus Mariota against Arizona.
Oklahoma's year certainly ended poorly, but the Sooners have hope for the future following the emergence of Perine. He set the single-game rushing record with 427 yards (and five scores) in a win over Kansas. This 64-yard TD scamper jump-started a comeback win for Oklahoma.
No Todd Gurley? No problem for the Bulldogs, who saw Nick Chubb announce himself as perhaps the best of all the freshman runners with a dominant 266-yard performance against a tough Louisville run defense. It was the most rushing yards by a Georgia back in a bowl and also a Belk Bowl mark.
More top playsNebraska's behind-the-back catch
It was all the way back in August, but this held up as one of the best plays of the year. Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp went behind the back to grab a pass during a 55-7 Cornhuskers win over Florida Atlantic.
A running back on Joey Bosa? Yeah, that's not going to end well. As dominant as Ohio State was down the stretch, it wouldn't have happened had the Buckeyes not taken care of Penn State. Bosa made sure they finally did, with a 31-24 double-overtime win.
Of all the plays on this list, this is the most important. Trailing Alabama 21-13 in the final seconds of the first half, Evan Spencer took a handoff on a reverse and somehow found Michael Thomas in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. The lesson? Even Ohio State's receivers are great quarterbacks.
Melvin Gordon's stay atop the record book for single-game rushing yards may have lasted only a week, but that does nothing to diminish his magical performance against Nebraska, when he ran for 408 yards and four touchdowns in a 59-24 rout of the Cornhuskers.
Minnesota may have lost its bowl game, but the Golden Gophers still had the highlight of the game, as tight end Maxx Williams hurdled two defenders en route to a 54-yard touchdown. So it's probably no surprise that Williams declared for the NFL draft after this game.
You can't do much more than a 99-yard touchdown return, and that's exactly what Shaq Thompson did for Washington to kick off the scoring in a 31-7 win over Cal.
About a year ago, long before the first game that factored into the College Football Playoff and before his team played a down of Big Ten football, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood began to offer to recruits his vision of the era ahead.
In particular, Flood told them he found it difficult to believe that a one-loss Big Ten champion would miss the four-team playoff.
A month into last season, as the league sat squarely outside playoff speculation, Flood did not waver, bolstered by his confidence in Big Ten coaches and the respect he believed the league had earned.
“Players want to win championships,” Flood said. “They want to know if they’re on the right team and have the right season that they have access to a championship.”
His assertion proved correct, of course, as Ohio State roared to the finish, securing the fourth spot in the semifinals.
In recruiting, dividends pay immediately.
Some Big Ten coaches, back on the recruiting trail for the past two weeks in the push toward signing day a week from Wednesday, have noticed a change in attitude from prospects who had grown accustomed to watching the league struggle on a big stage.
“A part of recruiting is perception,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said this week as he drove to recruiting stops in Indianapolis. “The perception of the Big Ten is that it’s on the rise right now. We enjoy that. We embrace that. We’re excited about that.”
So does a rising tide lift all boats in Big Ten recruiting? No consensus exists among league coaches. Wilson, whose program has qualified for one bowl game in the past two decades, and others said they welcome the flood of media exposure around Ohio State and Michigan this month as impactful for the entire conference in attracting prospects.
Minnesota defensive backs and special teams coach Jay Sawvel said he has heard the stereotype that Big Ten programs lag in athleticism.
It was justified at times, Sawvel said.
But the narrative can change. This bowl season helped. The Big Ten and SEC split four postseason meetings.
In four years at Minnesota with Jerry Kill, Sawvel said, he has found the Gophers received well by recruits. That reception has improved as Minnesota notched wins in the past 15 months over Penn State, Nebraska twice and Michigan.
“Our conference is known everywhere,” Sawvel said, “but it needed a step up in legitimacy. I think Ohio State’s run and what happened in other bowl games helped that a little bit. But what has to happen for the conference as a whole is for one through 14 to step up.”
Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh sees a change, too.
“It’s raised some eyebrows,” said Golesh, an Ohio State graduate who coaches tight ends and running backs for the Illini.
Golesh said he’s happy to use talk of a general upswing among the Big Ten as a selling point for Illinois in recruiting. He won’t go much further, though.
For instance, he has not talked once about Harbaugh with a recruit. How about Ohio State, which plays at Illinois in November?
“You find out what’s going to make the kid tick. You sell your program, your product, your fit and your coaching staff,” Golesh said this week while recruiting in Nashville. “I don’t think we’d bring up the success of another school unless you absolutely have to.”
It’s no different at Michigan State, which claims four 11-win seasons in the past five years -- a record matched in the Big Ten only by the Buckeyes.
A lot of times schools from the South that come recruiting in our part of the country, part of their pitch is, 'If you want to play great football, you have to come to the South.' That's a tough sell nowadays. After this bowl season, you'd be hard pressed to make that pitch to a recruit.- Rutgers coach Kyle Flood
“We’re selling results,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. “When we first came here, we were selling hope. We’re not selling hope now. That’s probably as big a difference as anything. The results are there. We’re putting a lot of guys in the NFL. It’s not a myth. These things are happening.”
Hope isn’t always a bad thing to sell, though, especially if it’s justified. Wilson, entering his fifth year at Indiana, said the Hoosiers have upgraded recruiting significantly since 2011.
The former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, Wilson watched Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas Tech elevate their programs in recent years. Some of it came through recruiting success aided by competing every year with Texas and Oklahoma.
The Big Ten East necessitates a similar climb as top programs continue to raise the bar. Wilson said his staff doesn’t blink at the rising challenge.
“It enhances recruiting,” Wilson said. “Look at what Michigan State has done. At the end of the day, the power of the Big Ten is a positive. We have sold that in recruiting. Great players want a chance to prove themselves against other great players.”
Harbaugh’s staff, with barely a month to build a recruiting class, fights to finish in this last week as five Big Ten teams rate among the national leaders in ESPN’s class rankings. Ohio State is seventh, followed by Penn State (12th), Michigan State (28th), Wisconsin (29th) and Nebraska (32nd).
For Flood at Rutgers, the selling points of the Big Ten are no different. He believed in the league before its recent turnaround.
When he shared his feelings last year about a one-loss league champion, recruits believed him. Still, Flood said, he knows they heard a different message from coaches outside the conference.
“A lot of times,” Flood said, “schools from the South that come recruiting in our part of the country, part of their pitch is, ‘If you want to play great football, you have to come to the South.’
“That’s a tough sell nowadays. After this bowl season, you’d be hard-pressed to make that pitch to a recruit.”
Autonomy. Now that Power 5 conferences have the autonomy they wanted, there will be discussion about how any decisions made will impact both the league and member schools and their real-world applications. Cost of attendance is sure to be a topic, as schools try to figure out a way to pay for the added expense at a time when revenues do not meet expenses in many athletic departments. Boston College voted against cost of attendance legislation, though the school will go ahead and pay for the cost increases.
Television. There have been recent reports that the ACC Network is getting closer to reality. Florida State president John Thrasher seemed optimistic in recent comments. So did Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock, who put a potential launch at 2016 or 2017. Television partners will be at the winter meetings, but they have annual face time with league reps. There is no set agenda for in-depth discussions about an ACC Network, but that doesn't mean plans are on the shelf. There has been progress made toward that end, but it would be premature to say the league was nearly ready to make a big announcement. League officials still have no timetable for when a network could come to fruition.
Scheduling. North Carolina and Wake Forest announced a nonconference series earlier this week that has drawn support from inside the ACC. Whether this becomes a trend remains to be seen, but surely athletic directors will have discussions about the pros and cons. However, the unconventional move does not mean the league is going to start rethinking how it handles its schedule. The vote last year to remain at eight league games has essentially put the scheduling questions to rest. Whether ACC schools want to schedule each other outside league play is an institutional decision.
One other topic that could come up is the College Football Playoff. Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich served on the playoff committee, and several athletic directors have mentioned they want to get his perspective to perhaps get a better idea of what they should be looking to do with their programs moving forward. There is no set agenda for Radakovich to address the group, but it wouldn't be a surprise if smaller group discussions took place.
Position to improve: Defensive line.
Why it was a problem: The Hurricanes’ defensive lines the last few seasons have hardly resembled those dominant units from the early 2000s, although the defense as a whole showed marked improvement statistically in 2014. However, it’s still not enough to satisfy the Canes’ fan base and, frankly, be a consistent top-25 team. The rush defense was porous in the Hurricanes’ big losses. Nebraska and Georgia Tech each rushed for more than 300 yards. Florida State running back Dalvin Cook ran wild in the second half of the Seminoles’ late comeback, and then Virginia and Pittsburgh combined for 421 rushing yards. The front four didn’t generate a consistent pass rush, either. The defense had 11 sacks through the first three games but only 16 in the final 10. Only seven of those 27 sacks were by defensive linemen.
How it can be fixed: Recruiting is the life source of any program, but landing high-level talent is especially critical along the offensive and defensive fronts. There are only so many physically imposing high school seniors in each cycle and the elite programs are the ones that pull a few every year. The criticisms of Mark D’Onofrio’s defense have been relentless, but he’s not had a full deck along the line during his tenure.
Early 2015 outlook: Al Golden and D’Onofrio should have enough blue-chip talent along the defensive line now, though, which means 2015 is going to be a season the defense has to take it to another level or two. Chad Thomas and Trent Harris were ESPN 300 recruits and played as a freshmen, as did defensive tackle Courtel Jenkins. Junior college recruit Calvin Heurtelou provided a steadying presence at tackle, too. The Hurricanes will also bring Al-Quadin Muhammad back into the fold. A season-long suspension cost the highly-ranked 2013 recruit his sophomore season, but Golden said in early January that Muhammad would return.
Position to improve: receivers
Why it was a problem: Replacing Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks never figured to be easy, but his early departure for the NFL left record-setting quarterback Sean Mannion with few reliable threats in his final season. It certainly didn't help when Richard Mullaney, the team's second-leading receiver in 2013, was lost for the season with an elbow injury in the sixth game of the year. His absence left Oregon State with a pair of freshmen (Hunter Jarmon and Jordan Villamin) and a sophomore (Victor Bolden) to serve as Mannion's primary options next to tight end Connor Hamlett. Those four players combined for just 11 touchdown receptions as Mannion's touchdown total fell from 37 to 15.
How it can be fixed: Getting Mullaney back is a good start, and considering how young the group was there should be a realistic expectation for significant improvement during the natural maturation process. Considering the Beavers don't have any known receiver commitments (as of Tuesday), that will have to be enough. With a new staff in place under coach Gary Andersen, the receivers will benefit from a holdover in position coach Brent Brennan, who is well-liked.
Early 2015 outlook: Datrin Guyton, a three-star receiver from Texas who signed with the Beavers last year, redshirted last season and will provide a 6-foot-5 target for whoever ends up replacing Mannion. It's still hard to imagine the Beavers will be that much better — if at all -- without Mannion and no major additions. Although, Andersen brought in former Colorado State offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin to run the offense a year after he guided the Rams to 321.6 passing yards per game, which ranked eighth in the country. Receiver Rashard Higgins had 96 catches for 1,750 yards under Baldwin's tutelage.
Problem position: Offensive line
Why offensive line was a problem in 2014: The Terrapins got pushed around too often up front, averaging just 121.8 rush yards per game (12th in the Big Ten) and surrendering 37 sacks, tied with Illinois for the second most in the Big Ten. Only Penn State's offensive line struggled more than Maryland's, which had decent experience but struggled with consistency. The Terrapins eclipsed 200 rush yards against both Iowa and Rutgers, but had just 168 combined yards against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State, and Stanford.
How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Maryland has recruited well to the offensive line, and could see a talent upgrade in 2015 despite losing three starters. Redshirt freshman Derwin Gray seems likely to start at one of the tackle positions, especially if Moise Larose doesn't return following a year-long suspension. Junior Michael Dunn started at both tackle spots last season, and also could slide inside to guard. Damian Prince, who headlined Maryland's 2014 recruiting class, should push for major playing time. Starting guard Andrew Zeller returns, and there will be competition on the interior with Evan Mulrooney, Brendan Moore and others.
How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The string of top offensive line recruits to pick Maryland continued when Quarvez Boulware, a four-star guard from Washington D.C., committed the Terrapins this month. Maryland also hoped to add Isaiah Prince, but he's heading to Alabama. Boulware and E.J. Donahue could compete for time as freshmen at the interior line positions. The Terps went heavy with interior line recruits this year, Ellis McKennie among them.
Early 2015 outlook: The talent already in the program gives Maryland's offensive line a chance to be much better in 2015. Larose's return would be big, as he started at left tackle as a freshman and provide some insurance as Gray and Damian Prince develop. There should be more competition for the interior spots, and center will be a position to watch as Moore, Mulrooney, and others vie for the starting job. The line's development becomes even more critical as Maryland turns to a new starting quarterback.
Sure, we could discuss the wide receivers or the pass rush off the edge, but if the Tigers are to contend in the SEC West, they have to perform better at quarterback.
Position to improve: Quarterback
Why it was a problem: LSU has had some mediocre seasons in the passing game under Les Miles, but 2014 was the low-water mark. The Tigers had the worst passing offense in the SEC (162.9 yards per game) and ranked 114th nationally. There were times when they struggled to complete even simple passes that should have kept drives alive, but instead resulted in punts. For the most part, if a defense was able to slow down the Tigers’ running game, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris were completely unable to move the chains with completions. The blame largely falls on Jennings’ shoulders, as he started 12 games but passed for at least 200 yards just once (in the opener against Wisconsin) and completed more than 50 percent of his passes in just four games. Harris, a true freshman last season, received far less playing time – and he gave a couple of promising early performances – but there were also times when it looked like he had no idea what he was doing on the field.
How it can be fixed: By this point, it seems as though we know what Jennings can do. He might be able to progress if he gets a second season as a starter, but his strength at quarterback seems to be in his leadership and rapport with his teammates, not his skills. Granted, he was largely able to avoid catastrophic errors – he threw only seven interceptions – but Jennings was not accurate or aggressive enough as a passer. LSU’s offense would likely be more dangerous with Harris under center, as he clearly possesses more electric skills. The question is whether he can put it all together and win the job. It appeared as though he might do that after back-to-back strong efforts against Mississippi State and New Mexico State, but Harris’ disastrous start in a 41-7 loss at Auburn put an end to his playing in any important situations. This will be a huge spring for both players, as Miles has said the starting job is open again.
Early 2015 outlook: There has been offseason buzz about LSU accepting a quarterback transfer from a high-profile program – and we can’t rule out that possibility with any certainty – but for now it appears that the starter will be either Jennings or Harris again. With Leonard Fournette in the backfield, it seems reasonable to expect LSU to remain a run-first offense, but it has to do a better job in the passing game to become a championship contender. There were times last fall when LSU’s offense was completely awful, and Jennings’ shortcomings as a passer were the biggest reason why the problem existed. It will be a major issue for LSU if one of two things doesn’t happen: one, Jennings wins the job again and plays at a much higher level; or two, Harris proves he has a grasp of the offense, claims the starting job and allows Cam Cameron to open up the playbook. Either of those outcomes would signal progress. The status quo will not be good enough.
From the coaching staff to the players, the Sooners underachieved in 2014. And it’s hard to lay the sole blame on one position as OU quarterbacks and receivers struggled while several other positions were inconsistent. But the secondary proved to be a clear weak link on a defense that finished No. 8 nationally against the run.
Position to improve: Defensive backs
Why it was a problem: It would have been easy to single out the cornerbacks, but that would have let the safeties off the hook. And vice versa. Thus the entire defensive backfield shoulders the blame as OU simply couldn’t trust its defensive backs to win their one-on-one battles in 2014. Cornerback Zack Sanchez won his share of individual battles on his way to six interceptions and All-Big 12 honors while safeties Ahmad Thomas and Quentin Hayes were among OU’s top five tacklers. Yet, OU’s defensive backs as a whole struggled throughout the season as the Sooners allowed 276.23 passing yards per game, ninth in the Big 12 and No. 117 among FBS teams. The Sooners' blowout home loss to Baylor spotlighted the lack of answers in the secondary.
How it can be fixed: Cornerbacks coach Bobby Jack Wright has retired so OU is likely to add another coach to help Mike Stoops coach the secondary, meaning new ideas and a change in approach could be step one. ESPN300 cornerback and current OU commit P.J. Mbanasor should help while upping the competition at cornerback. Sophomore cornerback Jordan Thomas, who flashed his talent at times as a freshman, should be improved and sophomore safety Steven Parker could help answer some questions at safety. Add ESPNJC50 cornerback William Johnson and the Sooners should have the depth to match up with spread offenses much better in 2015. The key for the Sooners is having at least eight defensive backs ready to play at a starting level next fall instead of having five clear starters then watching the secondary fall apart when the injury bug hits and an untested player gets thrown into the fire.
Early 2015 outlook: Recruiting misses and slow development played a major role in OU’s terrible pass defense in 2014. Added depth, competition and a new coaching style should combine to make this an improved unit. After all, it’s hard to go anywhere but up for OU's secondary.
Another characteristic -- confidence -- was a bit more abstract. Coaches said a proper playcaller has to take control of a game rather than allowing a defensive coordinator to get the upper hand.
It’s a chess game in the gladiator arena, and one coach said “bravado” is required.
“Always be on the attack,” he said, “regardless of down, distance, score or time of the game.”
Here are 10 playcallers -- coordinators and head coaches -- who most embody those elements.
1. Gus Malzahn, Auburn head coach
Even though the Auburn offense is built on the same few basic run plays, Malzahn continues to frustrate defensive coordinators.
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