NCF Nation: 2014 team previews

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:

Key returners: QB Everett Golson, RB Tarean Folston, RB Cam McDaniel, RB Greg Bryant, TE Ben Koyack, LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, RG Christian Lombard, DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Joe Schmidt, S Matthias Farley, S Max Redfield, S Austin Collinsworth

Key losses: QB Tommy Rees, RB George Atkinson III, WR TJ Jones, TE Troy Niklas, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, CB Bennett Jackson

Most important 2014 games: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan, Oct. 4 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Florida State, Nov. 8 at Arizona State, Nov. 29 at USC

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
AP Photo/Joe RaymondEverett Golson returns as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame after missing all of the past season due to issues related to academics.
Projected win percentage (from Stats & Info): 0.538 (pre-suspensions)

Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 (pre-suspensions)

Instant impact newcomer: Redshirt senior cornerback Cody Riggs did enough this summer and in fall camp to earn a starting job after transferring from Florida. But Riggs' role has become even more important after KeiVarae Russell (and three others) were suspended amid an academic probe. Riggs is a physical, versatile corner who brings along plenty of SEC experience and has proven to be a stabilizing force in light of Russell's suspension. He will likely prove to be one of the bigger fifth-year pickups in college football this season.

High point from 2013: It certainly didn't look like it at the time, but a 17-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 21 proved to be a huge win for the Irish and one that might have ended up changing the landscape of the national title race. The game was ugly, with poor offensive play all afternoon. Little did anyone know the Spartans would win the rest of their games, finish 13-1 and win the Rose Bowl. How much MSU learned from that defeat is anyone's guess, but it's not a stretch to think a 13-0 Spartans squad could have been No. 2 at the end of the regular season and facing Florida State in the BCS title game. Instead, one-loss SEC champion Auburn earned the shot.

Low point from 2013: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt was a huge letdown, as the Irish entered the game with just two defeats and BCS bowl hopes still alive. Turnovers and mental mistakes in the Steel City did them in, though -- characteristics unbecoming of a Brian Kelly team in November. When Kelly said after the season that 2013 was a good year that could've been great, it is safe to assume the Panthers game was the one at the top of his mind. A Week 2 loss at Michigan also hurt -- because a loss to Michigan always hurts. But the ramifications of the Pitt defeat were bigger.

Best-case scenario for 2014: The optimistic view sees a young Notre Dame team that does not play a true road game until Oct. 18 at Florida State. Until then, Golson and the Irish take care of business early and race to a 4-0 start before stumbling into Stanford. A back-loaded schedule makes even a confident team trip into a few road blocks, but Notre Dame manages to finish 9-3 and heads to one of the better ACC bowl games. All in all, it's a very strong season for a team facing so much uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball, especially given the camp suspensions. (We could see 10-2 and an access bowl as a best-case scenario with all of the currently suspended players on board.)

Worst-case scenario for 2014: This is a tough one to project, given the uncertainty surrounding the currently suspended Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, but the weight of those players' losses might actually be more than the sum of their parts. Yes, three are starters, and Notre Dame will struggle to replace them, but if the academic probe lingers far into the season, it creates one more obstacle for a young team that faces a very difficult schedule. Notre Dame is favored in most of its games, but it has zero cakewalks. A worst-case scenario has the Irish scrapping for bowl eligibility.

They said it: "You never want to lose any of your players, so that's always difficult. To lose any of your players, especially given the circumstances, that's always difficult. But I'm responsible for not just four players [but] 105-plus [and] over 30 support staff [members]. I've got to get going. I've got to move immediately to getting better as a program and as a football team. I don't spend much time on the past [and] don't mortgage the future. I try to stay in the present." — Kelly, on moving forward as four players serve an indefinite suspension amid Notre Dame's academic probe
 

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Vanderbilt Commodores:

2013 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC). Beat Houston 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Final grade for the 2013 season: This was quite the finale for former coach James Franklin. Winning nine games in back-to-back seasons was a first for Vanderbilt, and so was beating Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season. There were some up-and-down times for the offense, but the defense ranked sixth in the SEC. The Commodores capped the season with a blowout win over Houston in their bowl game, giving Vandy a solid A- for the season.

Key losses: QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, RB Wesley Tate, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Jonathan Krause, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler

[+] EnlargeCaleb Azubike
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCaleb Azubike posted 10 tackles for loss and four sacks as part of the DE rotation in 2013.
Key returnees: QB Patton Robinette, RB Jerron Seymour, RB Brian Kimbrow, OT Andrew Jelks, C Joe Townsend, DT Vince Taylor, LB Caleb Azubike, LB Kyle Woestmann

Breakout player: While Vandy has to replace a stud in Ladler at safety, new coach Derek Mason is very excited about the prospects of redshirt freshman Oren Burks. He was recruited to Vandy as a linebacker, but Mason calls him one of the best safeties people haven't heard about. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Burks should have no problem knocking people around.

Key position battle: Being a new coach in the SEC is one thing, but being a new coach and having a quarterback battle is another. It's down to three players -- Robinette, LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary -- and Mason has actually been pretty excited about the competition for a while now. Robinette has the most experience, and even came off the bench to deliver a comeback win over Georgia last year and later directed wins over Florida and Tennessee. Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, played sparingly at LSU, but he made up a lot of ground with his competitors this fall. He has a ton of upside and has two years of eligibility. McCrary might be the most athletic and the most talented of the bunch, which could get him on the field even if he isn't the starter.

Most important game: Even though the Commodores are breaking in a new coach, they aren't going to be overlooked in 2014. That means getting off to a fast start, and a win over Ole Miss in Nashville could be crucial to the Commodores' bowl chances in 2014. Last year's back-and-forth scoring act between these two was one for the ages. We still don't know fully what to expect from Vandy this fall, so to start 3-0 would be huge when it comes to the postseason.

Biggest question mark: The loss of Matthews and Krause takes away 154 receptions, 2,191 yards and 10 touchdowns from a year ago. That leaves sophomore Jordan Cunningham as the leading returning pass-catcher at receiver with his 15 catches from a year ago. Experience isn't something the Commodores have at receiver, and it doesn't help that the quarterback situation is unsettled. Redshirt freshman C.J. Duncan is a converted running back and might be the Commodores' most versatile player. Still, he has no in-game experience. Sophomore Latevius Rayford and redshirt freshman Gerald Perry have all shown flashes, and Kris Kentera has moved from tight end.

Upset special: Last year, Vandy went on a run of upsets. While beating Florida in Gainesville was historic for the Commodores, the biggest win of the season came when Vandy took down No. 15 Georgia 31-27 at home. This season, the Commodores could have another upset in the making with a home game against South Carolina on Sept. 20. The Gamecocks will enter the season ranked ninth in the country, and there's always that one game in which the Gamecocks get caught snoozing. Steve Spurrier has lost to Vandy twice (2007, 2008) since taking over at South Carolina in 2005, and both times his Gamecocks were ranked, including No. 6 in 2007. Four games in this series have been decided by seven or fewer points in that span.

Key stat: Vandy owned the SEC's No. 6 defense last year, but ranked 13th in the league when it came to stopping opponents in the red zone. Teams scored on 40 of 46 (86.96 percent) trips inside the Commodores' 20 last year. Twenty-nine of those scores were touchdowns.

They said it: "We’re going to be physical. We’re going to be a team that doesn’t beat itself. You’re going to have to take it out of our hands. We’re going to be a team that it’s going to take you four quarters -- you may even have to go five -- to try and pull one out of the hat. We’re just a team that’s going to be blue collar in terms of what we work toward, what we look like." -- Mason

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 4.93

Bovada over/under: 6

Our take: One thing that made Franklin so successful at Vandy was the attitude he instilled in his team. This was a program used to being pushed around at the bottom of the conference. Back-to-back nine-win seasons and three straight bowl trips were all firsts for the school, so can Mason, who also arrived in Nashville as a highly touted assistant coach, replicate Franklin's success? Now that everyone is paying attention to the Commodores, it won't be easy, and having questions at quarterback and receiver won't help, either. But a solid offensive line and running game should help the passing game, while Vandy has some good, underrated talent within its front seven and could have some breakout candidates in the secondary. Vandy won't get back to nine wins this season, but the Commodores will make their fourth straight bowl game, winning six games during the regular season.

Wisconsin Badgers season preview

August, 21, 2014
8/21/14
10:30
AM ET
 

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:

2013 overall record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OG Ryan Groy, DE Pat Muldoon, DT Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward

Key returnees: RB Melvin Gordon, OT Rob Havenstein, OG Kyle Costigan, OT Tyler Marz, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Michael Caputo

Instant impact newcomer: Safety Lubern Figaro. If you're from outside the Badger State, you're probably asking, "Who?" After all, Figaro was just a three-star recruit and enrolled over the summer -- but he's already projected to start in the opener. Part of the reason is reportedly an injury to safety Leo Musso, but Figaro has already done plenty to separate himself. In the first scrimmage this preseason, he returned a pick for a touchdown. DB Sojourn Shelton made an impact last season when he was a true freshman; now it looks as if it's Figaro's turn.

[+] EnlargeSojourn Shelton
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsSojourn Shelton and the Badgers' defense will have their hands full against teams in the West Division.
Projected starters

Offense: QB: Joel Stave, RS Jr., 6-5, 220; RB: Melvin Gordon, RS Jr., 6-1, 213; FB: Derek Watt, RS Jr., 6-2, 236; WR: Alex Erickson, RS So., 6-0, 196; WR: Reggie Love, RS So., 6-3, 214; TE: Sam Arneson, Sr., 6-4, 244; OT: Tyler Marz, RS Jr., 6-5, 321; OG: Dallas Lewallen, RS Sr., 6-6, 321: C: Dan Voltz, RS So., 6-3, 311; OG: Kyle Costigan, RS Sr., 6-5, 319; OT: Rob Havenstein, RS Sr., 6-8, 333

Defense: DE: Chikwe Obasih, RS Fr., 6-2, 268; DT: Warren Herring, RS Sr., 6-3, 294; DE: Konrad Zagzebski, RS Sr., 6-3, 277; OLB: Joe Schobert, Jr., 6-2, 240; ILB: Marcus Trotter, RS Sr., 6-0, 226; ILB: Derek Landisch, Sr., 6-0, 231; OLB: Vince Biegel, RS So., 6-4, 244; CB: Darius Hillary, RS Jr., 5-11, 188; CB: Sojourn Shelton, So., 5-9, 178; S: Michael Caputo, RS Jr., 6-1, 212; S: Lubern Figaro, Fr., 6-0, 179

Specialists: P: Drew Meyer, RS Jr., 6-3, 187; PK: Rafael Gaglianone, Fr., 5-11, 231

Biggest question mark: Can this front seven recover from so many key departures? Of the seven players who started in the Badgers' bowl game last season, only one returns. That leaves quite a few holes, especially when considering the departures of Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland and two All-Big Ten honorable mentions (Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon). Wisconsin's front seven dominated in 2013, as they helped the Badgers rank No. 5 nationally in rush defense (102.5 yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.3 points per game). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is solid, but he's not a magician. Those defensive numbers will almost certainly drop from last season -- but just how much?

Most important game: Nov. 15 versus Nebraska. It's basically a three-team race in the West Division, so this is a must-win if Wisconsin wants a spot in the Big Ten championship game. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule this season, so the Huskers and Iowa Hawkeyes are the teams to beat. Iowa is just as important, but that contest comes a week later, and that won't mean a thing if Wisconsin first can't get past this contest.

Upset special: Nov. 29 versus Minnesota. A lot could be on the line when the Badgers square off against Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. And, depending how Wisconsin's defense progresses, this could be an interesting one. Wisconsin's run defense is a wild card right now, and the Gophers could boast the second-toughest rushing attack on Wisconsin's schedule (outside of Nebraska). No team held Wisconsin to fewer points (20) last season than Minnesota, so there is some potential here. Plus, one has to think the Gophers will be able to manage better than a seven-point offensive effort this time around.

Key stat: Sure, everyone knows the departure of Jared Abbrederis will hurt Wisconsin. But the Badgers actually lost their top four targets, and only one (Jordan Fredrick) recorded catches in the double-digits. And he had just 10. Overall, Wisconsin lost 81 percent of its receiving production, as this year's returners had just 42 combined receptions last season compared with the 217 total catches.

What they're wearing: Wisconsin has come a long way since 2010, because it basically went from rotating between two uniform combinations to doing photo shoots with more than 20 combinations.

One possible new look includes an all-red, jersey-pant combo (not to be confused with Nebraska's all-red getup):

Team's top Twitter follows: Head coach Gary Andersen (@UWCoachAndersen) joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, but he pumps out unique tweets and is a great follow. The official Wisconsin football account (@BadgerFootball) tweets like crazy and is always on the ball. As far as players, running back Melvin Gordon (@Melvingordon25) is a no-brainer, while cornerback Sojourn Shelton (@SDS1_) definitely deserves a few more follows. There are quite a few good follows for your coverage needs -- besides us, of course -- including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) and SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q).

They said it: "No question there's a temptation to run him every time." – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on running back Melvin Gordon

Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins

Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.

Wake Forest season preview

August, 21, 2014
8/21/14
10:30
AM ET
 

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons:

Key returners: WR Tyree Harris, LB Brandon Chubb, SS Ryan Janvion, CB Kevin Johnson, CB Merrill Noel, P Alexander Kinal, K Chad Hedlund

Key losses: QB Tanner Price, RB Josh Harris, WR Michael Campanaro, DT Nikita Whitlock, LB Mike Olson

Instant impact newcomer: First-year coach Dave Clawson hopes the biggest impact comes from freshman John Wolford, who was recently named the Demon Deacons’ starting quarterback. Wolford had a solid offer sheet coming out of high school, as Mississippi State and Penn State both recruited the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Jacksonville, Florida, native. Clawson ideally won’t have to ask too much of his quarterback, but he will need to find a viable running back to ease the pressure off Wolford.

[+] EnlargeKevin Johnson
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonWake Forest will rely on its veteran players this season, including senior cornerback Kevin Johnson.
Most important 2014 games: Aug. 28 at Louisiana-Monroe, Nov. 15 at NC State, Nov. 29 at Duke

Projected win percentage: 30 percent

Over/under Vegas odds:

Best-case scenario for 2014: Clawson knows he has a serious rebuilding project at Wake Forest, and he will not be judged on how the Demon Deacons fare in his inaugural season. There is an opportunity for a few early wins before conference play begins, though. The opener against Louisiana-Monroe won’t be easy, as the Warhawks have been a solid Sun Belt team of late. But Wake Forest also plays Gardner-Webb and Army in the nonconference. If Wake can get to three wins and Wolford shows promise, this will be a good first season for Clawson.

Worst-case scenario: No one would be shocked if the Demon Deacons did not pick up a single win, which would mean they had an ugly loss to Gardner-Webb. Even if Wake Forest goes winless, Clawson is playing for the future. If Wolford doesn’t progress throughout the season, that could be the biggest setback to Wake’s future.

They said it: “We will try and redshirt players, but if a freshman gives us the best chance to win, we’re going to play him. It’s not fair to the juniors and the seniors in the program to make a decision based on what’s best five years from now. He gives us the best chance to win, so we will now prepare him as our starting quarterback.” -- Clawson

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights:

2013 record: 6-7 (3-5 American Athletic Conference)

Key losses: WR Brandon Coleman, QB Chas Dodd, WR Quron Pratt, DT Isaac Holmes, DE Marcus Thompson, S Jeremy Deering, DE/LB Jamal Merrell

Key returnees: RB Paul James, DT Darius Hamilton, LB Steve Longa, QB Gary Nova, WR Leonte Carroo, TE Tyler Kroft

Instant impact newcomer: Offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen was out of football for three years before Rutgers came calling. The former longtime head coach at Maryland is known as a quarterback guru, and the Scarlet Knights are counting on him to help fix the passing game and improve senior quarterback Nova's decision-making.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargePaul James
AP Photo/Mel EvansRunning back Paul James will be counted on as one of Rutgers' top returnees.
Offense: QB: Gary Nova, Sr., 6-2, 220; RB: Paul James, Jr., 6-0, 205; FB: Michael Burton, Sr., 6-0, 230; WR: Leonte Carroo, Jr., 6-1, 205; WR: Andre Patton, Soph., 6-4, 200; TE: Tyler Kroft, Jr., 6-6, 240; LT: Keith Lumpkin, Jr., 6-8, 310; LG: Kaleb Johnson, Sr., 6-4, 300; C: Betim Bujari, Sr., 6-4, 295; RG: Chris Muller, Soph., 6-6, 300; RT: Taj Alexander, Sr., 6-4, 290

Defense: DE: David Milewski, Sr., 6-4, 245; DT: Darius Hamilton, Jr., 6-4, 255; DT: Kenneth Kirksey, Sr., 6-1, 275; DE: Djwany Mera, Jr., 6-4, 260; LB: Steve Longa, Soph., 6-1, 225; LB: Kevin Snyder, Sr., 6-3, 235; LB: Quentin Gause, Jr., 6-1, 220; CB: Nadir Barnwell, Soph., 5-11, 185; FS: Johnathan Aiken, Sr., 5-11, 190; SS: Lorenzo Waters, Sr., 6-0, 195; CB: Anthony Cioffi, Soph., 6-0, 185

Special teams: K: Kyle Federico, Jr.; P Joseph Roth, Jr.

Biggest question mark: How ready is Rutgers for the Big Ten after never winning an outright conference title in the Big East or American Athletic conferences? The Scarlet Knights have a difficult schedule, with crossover opponents Nebraska and Wisconsin, rugged East Division competition and nonconference games at Washington State and at Navy. They have been a strong defensive team in recent years, particularly against the run. But will the philosophy of smaller but quick defensive linemen work against the brute force of many Big Ten squads?

Most important game: Penn State, Sept. 13. It's the first Big Ten game ever for the Scarlet Knights, arriving in Week 3 at home in what should be a special atmosphere in Piscataway. Rutgers hopes to make the Nittany Lions game a true rivalry and, more importantly, cool James Franklin's jets on the recruiting front. Winning this one -- or at the very least staying competitive -- could set the tone for the entire year and maybe the next few seasons.

Upset special: Sept. 27 vs. Tulane. This home game follows a tough two-game stretch against Penn State and on the road at Navy, a team that often discombobulates opponents with its option attack and cut blocking. The Tulane game also precedes a stretch that sees Rutgers face Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. The Scarlet Knights could already have nagging aches and pains by the time the Green Wave arrive in town.

Key stat: Rutgers' pass defense in 2013 was the worst in school history, as the Scarlet Knights gave up 4,056 passing yards and 31 touchdowns. That's not good news with an opener against Mike Leach's Washington State looming and quarterbacks such as Christian Hackenberg, Connor Cook, Nate Sudfeld and Braxton Miller on the schedule.

What they're wearing: The Scarlet Knights haven't unveiled any new looks yet but have announced that they intend to wear all-black uniforms for the Oct. 4 game against Michigan at home.

Team's top Twitter follows: The team's official account (@RFootball) is chock-full of excellent updates. The Star-Ledger's indefatigable stable of writers (@NJ_RutgersFB) is constantly churning out Scarlet Knights stories. Coach Kyle Flood (@KyleFloodRU) offers occasional insights into the program as well.

They said it: "I would describe us as a tough, physical football team. Going to a new league opens up new opportunities for us. We've played a lot of different teams from a lot of different conferences, a lot of different caliber of teams. We'll be prepared for when the season starts." -- senior fullback Michael Burton

ESPN Stats & Information projection: 4.81 wins

Wiseguys over/under: Four wins

Big Ten blog projection: Four wins. Sorry, Scarlet Knights fans, but we think your first year in the Big Ten is going to be a rough one. Rutgers has been an annual bowl team in the past decade but not much better than a fringe one. And with that daunting schedule, it's hard to envision many paths back to the postseason. Flood's team should be significant underdogs against Washington State, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Maryland, Indiana and Navy won't be easy games either. Maybe Rutgers surprises everybody in Year 1, but the odds are heavily against it.

Texas A&M Aggies season preview

August, 20, 2014
8/20/14
10:30
AM ET

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Texas A&M Aggies:

2013 record: 9-4

Final grade for 2013 season: The Aggies finished fourth in the SEC West, and considering the lofty preseason expectations placed upon them with a returning Heisman Trophy winner and three eventual first-round NFL draft picks, it wasn't quite the season they hoped for. The nine wins are nice, and so was the Chick-fil-A Bowl victory, but they were 1-4 against Top 25 teams. We'll give them a B-minus.

Key losses: QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, WR Mike Evans, WR Travis Labhart, OT Jake Matthews, DT Isaiah Golden, DE Gavin Stansbury, LB Darian Claiborne, LB Steven Jenkins.

Key returnees: QB Kenny Hill, RB Tra Carson, RB Trey Williams, WR Malcome Kennedy, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, OT Cedric Ogbuehi, C Mike Matthews, DE Julien Obioha, LB Jordan Mastrogiovanni, CB Deshazor Everett, CB De'Vante Harris.

Projected 2014 starters: QB Kenny Hill, RB Tra Carson, LT Cedric Ogbuehi, LG Garrett Gramling, C Mike Matthews, RG Joseph Cheek, RT Germain Ifedi, WR Speedy Noil, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, WR Malcome Kennedy, WR Joshua Reynolds, DE Daeshon Hall, DT Alonzo Williams, DT Hardreck Walker, DE Julien Obioha, OLB Donnie Baggs, MLB Jordan Mastrogiovanni, OLB A.J. Hilliard, CB Deshazor Everett, S Howard Matthews, S Armani Watts, CB De'Vante Harris.

Instant-impact newcomers: WR Speedy Noil, DE Myles Garrett, WR Joshua Reynolds, DT Zaycoven Henderson, S Armani Watts

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett and the Aggies' defense will have their work cut out for them this season.
Breakout player: His collegiate debut as a true freshman gave us a glimpse of his ability but an injury robbed Ricky Seals-Jones of the rest of his season. Now he's healthy, big (6-foot-5, 230 pounds), fast for his size and only continues to get better as a receiver. He'll be able to line up inside or outside, but expect him to spend most of his time as an inside receiver, looking for mismatches against linebackers and safeties. He is developing good chemistry with new starting quarterback Kenny Hill, so expect the 2013 ESPN 300 recruit to have a huge season.

Most important game: There are plenty of big ones, but our pick is South Carolina. Yes, it's the season opener and there are 11 games that follow, but for a young A&M team that has inexperienced players in many key positions, most notably quarterback, going to Columbia and generating some confidence -- win or lose -- will be important. The Gamecocks are a top-10 team and SEC road games are tough, but think of the way the Aggies got on a roll after their competitive SEC debut in 2012, a 20-17 loss to Florida. Like that season, the Aggies have a lot to prove and many tough SEC road games in their future, and a win or at least playing well on Aug. 28 can go a long way toward getting this group heading in the right direction.

Biggest question mark: Without question, it's the defense. It was atrocious last season and the Aggies lost four players this offseason who they expected to return, three of which would likely have been starters. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is encouraged by the increased athleticism and depth his group has, thanks in large part to the influx of talent from the 2014 recruiting class, but there are still many unproven talents who will log significant time in the front seven. Can they take a step forward this season?

Upset special: Keep an eye on the LSU game. Seems to be an unusual choice, since the Aggies didn't beat the Tigers the two years Manziel was on campus, but the last time LSU visited Kyle Field, Texas A&M took a 12-0 lead with its up-tempo offense before the Tigers came from behind to win 24-19 in Manziel's freshman season. Night games at Kyle Field usually provide for an electric atmosphere, so expect nothing less on Thanksgiving night. By Game 12, the Aggies' offense should be operating at peak efficiency and the young defense should be coming into its own. Don't be shocked if the Aggies finally upend the Tigers here.

Key stat: Texas A&M returns offensive linemen that combine for 78 career starts, though the most tenured starter of them all -- guard Jarvis Harrison (31 starts) -- might not start, an indication of the depth the Aggies developed across their offensive front.

They said it: "That was a very tough decision. Both of them are playing at a very high level. I just kind of went back to my gut feeling and the maturity of him and being around this system for one year. There were a lot of other factors, but that was the one that kind of stood out the most to me, because he sat here and watched Johnny for a year and he's going to be put in some situation that he has probably – hopefully – seen before, and he can get us out of those bad looks." -- Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, on why the Aggies chose Kenny Hill to start at quarterback over Kyle Allen.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 8.3 wins

Bovada over/under: 7 wins

Our take: The schedule-makers did the Aggies no favors by giving them road games at South Carolina, Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn. That's tough for a young squad. Fortunately for the Aggies, after the opener at Williams Brice Stadium, they have three manageable nonconference games and Arkansas, so the opportunity to string wins together is there early in the season. Even minus Manziel, Evans and Matthews, this offense should still be one of the best in the nation given Kevin Sumlin's and Jake Spavital's track record for coaching offensive football. Will the defense be better? It should be given the added talent and depth. How much better is the key question and will be the difference between a six- or seven-win season and an eight- or nine-win season. This is definitely a bowl team but probably not ready to finish in the top two of the SEC West yet; 2015 is the season this team could take a huge step forward. If the Aggies finish the 2014 regular season with eight wins, that should be considered a good year and something to build on for 2015.

Virginia Tech Hokies season preview

August, 20, 2014
8/20/14
10:30
AM ET

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Virginia Tech Hokies:

Key returners: RB Trey Edmunds (675 yards, 10 TDs), WR Willie Byrn (51 catches, 660 yards), WR Demitri Knowles (641 yards), WR Josh Stanford (640 yards), C David Wang, LB Kyshoen Jarrett (71 tackles, 2 INTs), CB Kendall Fuller (6 INTs, 11 pass break-ups), CB Brandon Facyson (5 INTs), DT Luther Maddy (13.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks)

Key losses: QB Logan Thomas, OG Andrew Miller, WR D.J. Coles, K Cody Journell, LB Jack Tyler, LB Tyriq Edwards, DL Derrick Hopkins, CB Kyle Fuller, DL James Gayle, DL J.R. Collins,

Most important games: Sept. 6 at Ohio State, Oct. 4 at North Carolina, Oct. 16 at Pitt, Oct. 23 at Miami.

Projected win percentage: .637

Vegas over/under: 8 wins

[+] EnlargeWillie Byrn
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsWide receiver Willie Byrn says the Hokies plan to embark on a championship run in 2014.
Instant impact newcomers: Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer has his eyes on the starting quarterback job, and plenty of Tech fans view him as a potential savior for an offense that languished the past two years. Freshman tailback Marshawn Williams had an encouraging spring and could push Edmunds for carries. Redshirt freshman Seth Dooley figures to help fill the void on the defensive line. Tight end Bucky Hodges, a redshirt freshman, is 6-foot-6 and could be an inviting red zone target.

Biggest question mark: The quarterback position was undoubtedly the biggest question mark entering fall camp, but turning around the offensive struggles for Virginia Tech will be a group effort, regardless of who takes the bulk of the snaps this season. Edmunds and the other running backs need to take pressure off the QB by moving the ball on the ground. The O-line needs to be more physical and help Tech convert more third downs, a huge problem last season. The receivers need to get open and, just as importantly, hang on to the football when it comes their way. If all those other things happen, the wins may come regardless of the quarterback.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Coach Frank Beamer finds his quarterback, the rest of the offense grows up around him, and Virginia Tech finally has an offensive identity. The special teams unit returns to its “Beamer Ball” roots, and the defense looks as good as it did a year ago, even without its departed stars. An early upset of Ohio State earns the Hokies national credibility and a reasonable schedule in conference puts Tech in the hunt for a division title and a shot at the College Football Playoff.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: No QB emerges as an obvious choice to start, and a revolving door opens at the position. Edmunds and the receivers show little improvement from a year ago. The defense misses Tyler and the elder Fuller and can’t mask the offensive struggles any longer. The atmosphere gets tense internally and the Hokies struggle against flawed teams in their own division. The 21-year bowl streak comes to an end.

Number to know: 12.6. That’s Virginia Tech’s yards per completion last season, which, surprisingly enough, was right about the same as what the prolific offense at Clemson managed (12.7). The difference in the two passing games? The Hokies completed just 56 percent of their attempts. Clemson completed 69 percent. Chalk it up to the accuracy issues of Thomas, but the receivers also need to do a better job of avoiding drops in key spots.

They said it: “I’m thinking about, it's ACC championship or bust, and I think our whole team has that sense of urgency.” -- Byrn

Virginia Cavaliers season preview

August, 19, 2014
8/19/14
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Virginia Cavaliers:

Key returners: RB Kevin Parks, RB Taquan Mizzell, S Anthony Harris, DE Eli Harold, LB Henry Coley

Key losses: TE Jake McGee, OT Morgan Moses, DE Jake Snyder, DT Brent Urban

Most important 2014 games: UCLA, Aug. 30; Miami, Nov. 22; at Virginia Tech, Nov. 28

Projected win percentage: 37 percent

Over/under Vegas odds: 3

[+] EnlargeKevin Parks
AP Photo/Andrew ShurtleffRunning back Kevin Parks is among the few proven performers Virginia returns on offense.
Instant impact newcomers: Defensive tackle Andrew Brown and safety Quin Blanding. There is little doubt that the two highest-rated players in the 2014 signing class will play for the Cavs this season. Brown has had a little setback in dealing with a turf toe injury that has bothered him since the spring. But when he is healthy, he will be a contributor on a defensive line that needs depth at tackle. Blanding has been working with the first-team defense since spring practice opened. By all accounts, he is as good as advertised.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Greyson Lambert brings consistency to the quarterback position, allowing the offense to flourish. The defense improves on the gains it made from a season ago, and the Hoos cut down on penalties and turnovers. Parks turns in another 1,000-yard season, and playmaker receivers emerge to help Virginia pull several upsets, end a long losing streak to rival Virginia Tech, make a bowl and become the surprise team in the ACC.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: Quarterback remains an issue behind Lambert, and the offensive line fails to gain any cohesion. Without any stability up front or behind Lambert, Virginia continues to struggle to move the ball and score points. Defensively, Virginia continues to give up too many big plays. One of the toughest schedules in the ACC does the Cavaliers no favors, and they sink to their third straight losing season.

They said it: "The identity is one of unity. You can talk about, well, how does that happen? Last year, we had four seniors. This year, we have 22. There's a maturation process that takes place when you have teams that are looking for leaders, that are looking for an identity. … The expectations of performing are paramount for us." -- coach Mike London.

Biggest question mark: How much time do we have? Outside of Parks, the entire offense remains a question mark. The offensive line has not been solidified yet; Lambert remains a wild card; and there is no go-to player among the receivers with McGee gone. Virginia is in desperate need of a big-play threat in the receiver group and a quarterback who can limit the mistakes. We still don’t know whether both will come to fruition for this team in 2014.

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Washington State Cougars:

2013 record: 6-7, 4-5 Pac-12, lost to Colorado State in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, 48-45

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonSenior QB Connor Halliday will lead the Cougars this season, starting off Aug. 28 against Rutgers.
Final grade for 2013: B

Key returnees: QB Connor Halliday, WR Gabe Marks, WR Vince Mayle, WR River Cracraft, DL Xavier Cooper

Key losses: S Deone Bucannon, OLB Justin Sagote, C Elliott Bosch, OL John Fullington, K Andrew Furney

Projected win percentage (ESPN.com Stats & Information): .425

Chances to win the conference (ESPN.com Stats & Information): 0.1 percent

Instant impact newcomer: CB Marcellus Pippins

Most important game: Saturday, Nov. 29 vs. Washington

Biggest question mark: The offense will put up numbers because of Mike Leach, but can the defense make big stops ... or at least enough stops?

Best-case scenario: 8-4

Worst-case scenario: 4-8 with just one conference win

Over-under win total (Bovada): 5.5

Upset special: Saturday, Sept. 20 vs. Oregon. The Ducks have to come into Pullman, Washington, and it's just early enough in the season that if Marcus Mariota hasn't gained enough chemistry with his young receivers, the Cougars could put a notch on the Ducks' record.

They said it: On whether Leach would rather bear hunt with Washington coach Chris Petersen or Utah coach Kyle Whittingham: “What I'm thinking is we get a large bag and we stick in Coach Petersen, Coach Whittingham, and we shake that bag up really high and really hard. That will be a tough guy to walk out of the bag, I think.”

Tennessee Volunteers season preview

August, 19, 2014
8/19/14
10:30
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Tennessee Volunteers:

2013 record: 5-7

Final grade for the 2013 season: Butch Jones' first season on the field at Tennessee was a mixed bag. The Vols took Georgia to overtime and upset South Carolina two weeks later. They also lost for a second straight season to Vanderbilt, lost four of their final five games to end the season and wound up below .500 for the fourth straight season. All in all, it was just a notch below average, so a C-minus sounds about right.

[+] EnlargeJustin Worley
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith more weapons around him this season, Justin Worley is aiming to deliver Tennessee to a bowl game.
Key losses: RB Rajion Neal, OT Ja'Wuan James, OT Antonio Richardson, DT Daniel McCullers, DE Corey Miller, PK/P Michael Palardy

Key returnees: QB Justin Worley, WR Marquez North, OG Marcus Jackson, DE Curt Maggitt, DE Corey Vereen, LB A.J. Johnson, CB Cameron Sutton

Instant impact newcomers: RB Jalen Hurd, WR Von Pearson, WR Josh Malone, TE Ethan Wolf, OT Coleman Thomas, DE Derek Barnett, CB Emmanuel Moseley

Breakout player: Most of the preseason drama at Tennessee revolved around the quarterback race, but Jones ended that last week when he named Worley the starter. Had he not injured his thumb and missed the remainder of the season a year ago, the Vols probably would have gone to a bowl game. He's been put in some tough positions during his career, including being thrown to the wolves as a true freshman before he was ready. But he's persevered. His arm has gotten stronger. He's healthy now, and he also has more playmakers around him this season. Nobody's pushing him for the Heisman Trophy or even All-SEC honors, but here's betting Worley has a very solid senior season after throwing more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (11) in his previous three seasons.

Most important game: We'll cheat and go 1A (Florida on Oct. 4) and 1B (Missouri on Nov. 22). Both games are at home, and both will go a long way toward determining whether or not the Vols can make it to the postseason. They've lost nine in a row to Florida, so ending that drought would be a big step in the right direction for Jones and the program. The Missouri game is sandwiched between a home game with Kentucky and the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt. It could be that the Vols have to win all three to go bowling.

Biggest question mark: It's gotta be the defensive line. The Vols don't return any starters up front defensively and are hopeful Maggitt can stay healthy and become that finisher off the edge after moving from linebacker to end. He missed all of last season with a knee injury and has been banged up in preseason camp. The Vols like their collection of young defensive linemen, but how well they're able to hold up right there in the middle of their defense is a huge concern.

Upset special: Right out of the gate, Tennessee had better be on its toes. Chuckie Keeton and Utah State aren't coming to Neyland Stadium on Aug. 31 to soak up the sights and sounds. The Aggies are coming to win.

Key stat: Tennessee is the only FBS team in the country without a returning starter in the offensive or defensive lines.

They said it: “We’re going through the realities of building a football program. Sometimes, I think of us as an expansion team. But our players have done a great job. They’ve really embraced everything. Our older players are really mentoring the younger players. The whole key for us is how we manage the natural adversities that a football season brings about." -- Tennessee coach Butch Jones

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 5.4 wins

Bovada over-under: 5.5 wins

Our take: The killer for Tennessee is being so unproven in both the offensive and defensive lines. The Vols will be counting on a ton of players up front who are seeing their first meaningful SEC action. The good news is that they've added speed on both sides of the ball and have more players at the offensive skill positions capable of making big plays. Jones has given everybody in the Tennessee family a reason to believe again with his recruiting prowess. The Vols are still a year away from contending in the East, but should be able to squeeze out six wins and get to a bowl game in 2014.

Purdue Boilermakers season preview

August, 19, 2014
8/19/14
10:30
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Purdue Boilermakers.

2013 overall record: 1-11 (0-8 Big Ten)

Key returnees: Danny Etling, QB; Justin Sinz, TE; Ryan Russell, DE; Frankie Williams, DB; Raheem Mostert RB/KR.

Key losses: Ricardo Allen, CB; Bruce Gaston, DT; Greg Latta, DE; RT Justin Kitchens, RT; Kevin Pamphile, LT.

Instant impact newcomer:

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Danny Etling, So., 6-2, 221; RB: Raheem Mostert, Sr., 5-11, 190; WR: DeAngelo Yancey, So., 6-2, 218; WR: Cameron Posey, So., 6-1, 182; TE: Justin Sinz, Sr., 6-4, 235; WR: Danny Anthrop, Jr., 6-0, 191; LT: Jack De Boef, Sr., 6-7, 290; LG: Jason King, So., 6-4, 309; C: Robert Kugler, Jr., 6-3, 298; RG: Jordan Roos, So., 6-4, 312; RT: J.J. Prince, So., 6-6, 302.

Defense: DE: Ryan Russell, Sr., 6-5, 273; DT: Jake Replogle, So., 6-5, 269; NT: Ra'Zahn Howard, So., 6-3, 323; LB: Jimmy Herman, So., 6-4, 230; LB: Jalani Phillips, Sr., 6-4, 265; LB: Sean Robinson, 6-3, 239; LB: Joe Gilliam, Sr., 6-1, 230; CB: Antoine Lewis, Sr., 5-10, 186; S: Frankie Williams, 5-9, 189; S: Landon Feichter, Sr., 6-0, 192; CB: Anthony Brown, Jr., 5-11, 195.

[+] EnlargeDanny Etling
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerDanny Etling threw for 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Specialists: P: Thomas Meadows, Jr., 6-0, 183; K: Paul Griggs, Jr., 6-1, 197.

Biggest question mark: Picking just one for a team coming off a train-wreck season like Purdue did a year ago is a challenge, because there is so much improvement to be made across the board. But if the Boilermakers are going to start threatening anybody in the Big Ten, they're going to have to find a consistent way to move the ball. Whether that means getting Mostert and his dangerous speed more involved for a rushing attack that gained just 805 yards collectively or trusting Etling's arm to air it out without turning the ball over so much doesn't make much difference. One way or the other, Purdue is going to need to score more than 15 points per game if it's going to climb out of the cellar.

Most important game: Oct. 4 at Illinois. Purdue is still a long way from even thinking about contending in the Big Ten as Darrell Hazell reshapes the program, but it can certainly show progress by climbing the ladder against the presumptive bottom half of the league. With a mostly manageable slate outside of the league, Purdue has a chance to post three wins in September to build some momentum and put a potential bowl bid in reach, but beating a team like the Illini on the road would likely be a necessity to keep that possibility alive.

Upset special: Nov. 22 against Northwestern. By late November, a team that already has plenty of experience elsewhere on the roster should have a quarterback with enough game reps to be considered a veteran. And if Etling is able to stretch defenses enough to open rushing lanes for a game-breaking weapon like Mostert, Purdue could make a late run to bowl eligibility by exposing a Northwestern defense that has question marks of its own to give Hazell another sign that his program is heading in the right direction.

Key stat: Purdue opened Big Ten play last season by getting outscored 158-17 during the first half of league play. That incredibly lopsided margin could have been worse if not for a surprisingly low-scoring loss to eventual conference champion Michigan State, which won only 14-0 at home against the Boilermakers.

What they're wearing: The Boilermakers will truly be representing the student body when they take the field on Sept. 27 against Iowa, debuting a helmet that will have pictures of students and season-ticket holders wearing team gear on the sticker. After the game, Purdue is planning to send out a digital copy of the "Motion P" logo with the approximately 1,000 photos the program is hoping to receive on it.

Team's top Twitter follows: Sophomore offensive lineman Jason King (@Jason72King) provides his view from the trenches and has been updating fans on training camp. Tight end Justin Sinz (@JSinz84) isn't afraid to weigh in on other sports, and recently informed his followers about his graduation. Defensive end Ryan Russell (@RKRelentless) is always good for some inspiration, and the official team account (@BoilerFootball) provides no shortage of behind-the-scenes footage.

They said it: "Obviously we didn't finish as well as we'd like to last year. There's a lot of things for improvement. But I think this is the time where you rip off the rearview mirror and you take a look at what's in front of you and all the things we need to do to be successful in this 2014 season." -- Purdue coach Darrell Hazell.

Stats & Information projection: 3.56 wins.

Wise guys over/under: 3.5 wins.

Big Ten blog projection: 4 wins. The rebuilding job is going to take time, and Purdue hasn't made up much ground on the rest of the conference quite yet. The Boilermakers should be able to put themselves in position to top that over/under from the wise guys thanks to a modest, manageable nonconference schedule -- excluding the matchup with Notre Dame in Indianapolis. It will come down to knocking off another program trying to find the way up in the Big Ten, a team like Illinois or in-state rival Indiana, if Purdue is going to get over the mark. If the program is truly taking a step forward this season, it should win one of those league games.
 

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Penn State Nittany Lions.

2013 overall record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)

Key returnees: Christian Hackenberg, QB; Bill Belton, RB; Zach Zwinak, RB; Donovan Smith, OT; Jesse James, TE; Deion Barnes, DE; C.J. Olaniyan, DE; Mike Hull, LB; Adrian Amos, S; Jordan Lucas, CB

Key losses: Allen Robinson, WR; John Urschel, G; Ty Howle, C; Adam Gress, OT; DaQuan Jones, DT; Glenn Carson, LB; Malcolm Willis, S

Instant impact newcomer: The easy pick is at wide receiver, where Penn State needs help following the departure of Allen Robinson. The team signed several talented receivers in February, and Chris Godwin could be the best of the bunch. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Godwin has the physical tools to contribute right away for PSU's offense. Also keep an eye on receivers De'Andre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J PuskarQB Christian Hackenberg became the first sophomore ever to be named a captain at Penn State.
Offense: QB: Christian Hackenberg, Soph., 6-4, 234; RB: Bill Belton, Sr., 5-10, 204; WR: Geno Lewis, Soph., 6-1, 199; WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Fr., 6-1, 203; TE: Jesse James, Jr., 6-7, 254; TE: Kyle Carter, Jr., 6-3, 241; OT: Donovan Smith, Sr., 6-5, 335; OT: Andrew Nelson, Fr., 6-5, 305; G: Derek Dowrey, Soph., 6-3, 323; G: Brian Gaia, Soph., 6-3, 291; C: Angelo Mangiro, Jr., 6-3, 309

Defense: DE: Deion Barnes, Jr., 6-4, 255; DE: C.J. Olaniyan, Sr., 6-3, 252; DT: Austin Johnson, Soph., 6-4, 313; DT: Anthony Zettel, Jr., 6-4, 274; LB: Brandon Bell, Soph., 6-1, 222; LB: Mike Hull, Sr., 6-0, 232; LB: Nyeem Wartman, Soph., 6-1, 236; CB: Jordan Lucas, Jr., 6-0, 198; CB: Trevor Williams, Jr., 6-1, 188; S: Adrian Amos, Sr., 6-0, 209; S: Ryan Keiser, Sr., 6-1, 208

Specialists: K: Sam Ficken, Sr., 6-2, 186; P: Chris Gulla, Fr., 6-0, 193

Biggest question mark: Can assistant coach Herb Hand work his magic with the offensive line? The Lions likely will start two converted defensive linemen, Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey, at the guard spots and a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. Left tackle Donovan Smith will anchor the group and should contend for All-Big Ten honors, but Penn State is dangerously thin up front and can't afford to put Hackenberg in harm's way.

Most important game: Aug. 30 against UCF in Dublin (not the one in Ohio). There has been a lot of positive energy since James Franklin arrived in January, but the team remains somewhat of a mystery. Penn State could be a pleasant surprise or regress after the latest transition. It's important to start off well and build confidence in a setting where it matters. UCF isn't an easy draw as the Knights come off a Fiesta Bowl championship and bring back nine starters on defense. They were picked second in the American in the preseason media poll. This game really sets the tone for PSU.

Upset special: Nov. 29 against Michigan State. Unless the NCAA changes course on Penn State's ban, this will serve as the Lions' bowl game as they wrap up the season. Penn State has recorded very impressive wins against Wisconsin to finish each of the past two seasons, and Michigan State can expect the Lions' best shot at Beaver Stadium. A lot depends on PSU's health entering the game, but the Lions have a chance here.

Key stat: Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Florida State's Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner, were the only FBS freshman to record 14 passes of 40 yards or longer in 2013.

What they're wearing: A smiling Franklin said last month on ESPN, "I've always been a big fan of what Oregon has done, and my time at Maryland, so I think we're going to do something similar to that. We're not going to do anything gradual. We're just going to go right after it." A complete makeover seems unlikely at Penn State, which cherishes its traditional blue-and-white look but put players' names on jerseys in each of the past two seasons.

Stay tuned.

Team's top Twitter follows: No Big Ten coaching staff embraces social media quite like Franklin (@coachjfranklin) and his assistants. Be sure to follow offensive line coach Herb Hand (@CoachHand), running backs coach/special teams coordinator Charles Huff (@CoachHuff), defensive line coach Sean Spencer (@SpenceChaos) and others. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg tweets (@chackenberg1), and other good follows include cornerback Jordan Lucas (@_JLucas9), offensive lineman Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65), defensive end Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) and running back Akeel Lynch (@ALynch_22). The official team handle (@PennStateFball) tweets some good stuff, and the recruiting staff has an account (@PSURecruits).

They said it: " Right now we have some challenges and issues that we need to overcome. So guys are going to have an opportunity to come in and impact the roster quickly." -- coach James Franklin

Stats & Info projections: 6.85 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Eight wins. There are so many unknowns here, such as the team's health/depth and whether the postseason ban will be lifted. A few injuries to the wrong players, and Penn State could be staring at a losing season. But I like the starting 22 and think the defense will be improved under Bob Shoop's direction. The Lions don't play the top teams in the West division, and they get both Michigan State and Ohio State at home.

Washington Huskies season preview

August, 18, 2014
8/18/14
10:30
AM ET
 

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Washington Huskies.

2013 record: 9-4, 5-4 Pac-12; beat BYU 31-16 in Fight Hunger Bowl.

Final grade for 2013: B. Steve Sarkisian took over a team that went 0-12 in 2008, and it won nine games the season he left. That rates as a strong turnaround. On the downside, the 5-4 record in Pac-12 play matched only the previous three seasons, although only Oregon, Stanford, USC and Washington can claim four consecutive winning conference records.

Key returnees: LT Micah Hatchie, WR Jaydon Mickens, LB Shaq Thompson, DE Hau'oli Kikaha, DT Danny Shelton, CB Marcus Peters.

[+] EnlargeShaq Thompson
Jesse Beals/Icon SMIWashington's Shaq Thompson scored six touchdowns this season -- four on defense and two on offense -- and was the first-team all-purpose player.
Key losses: RB Bishop Sankey, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, QB Keith Price, S Sean Parker.

Projected winning percentage (ESPN.com Stats & Information): 0.607

Chances to win the conference (ESPN.com Stats & Information): 0.7 percent

Instant impact newcomers: S Budda Baker, CB Naijiel Hale, DL Will Dissly.

Most important game: Versus Stanford on Sept. 27. Talk about a big Pac-12 North opener for both teams, as well as a great introduction to the conference for Chris Petersen. The Huskies should be 4-0 at this point and ranked at least near the top 15. If the Cardinal is also unbeaten -- they play USC on Sept. 6 -- this could be a game of national importance. At the very least, the Huskies could announce their candidacy in the North Division with a win.

Biggest question mark: While most eyes are on quarterback and running back, the Huskies' secondary is going to be young around Peters, a top NFL prospect. A questionable secondary is worrisome in a conference that is deep at QB and receiver.

Best case scenario: 11-2

Worst case scenario: 6-7.

Over-under win total (Bovada): 9

Upset special: Nov. 15 at Arizona. The Huskies could be cruising along, feeling all nationally ranked and everything when they make a trip to Tucson. Ask Oregon how that can be a trap. Further, the Wildcats have so much depth at receiver, they could exploit a young secondary, even 11 games into the season.

They said it: "Loved the place I was at without question. Could have stayed there a long time and been happy. But I felt it had to do with growing and stretching myself a little bit, and the opportunity at Washington, being the special place that I thought it was. But it's really hard to kind of tell you why. It's kind of a gut feeling." -- Chris Petersen on why he finally left Boise State for Washington.

South Carolina Gamecocks season preview

August, 18, 2014
8/18/14
10:30
AM ET
 

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Previewing the 2014 season for the South Carolina Gamecocks:

2013 record: 11-2, beat Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl

Final grade for the 2013 season: South Carolina carved out a third straight top-10 finish and was the only team nationally to beat three teams that finished the season ranked in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll. A bad loss to Tennessee kept the Gamecocks out of the SEC championship game, making this an A- instead of an A.

Key losses: QB Connor Shaw, WR Bruce Ellington, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DT Kelcy Quarles, CB Victor Hampton

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesRunning back Mike Davis could be in line for another big season for South Carolina.
Key returnees: QB Dylan Thompson, RB Mike Davis, OG A.J. Cann, OT Corey Robinson, DT J.T. Surratt, LB Skai Moore, CB Brison Williams

Instant impact newcomers: RB David Williams, DT Abu Lamin, LB Bryson Allen-Williams, CB Al Harris Jr., CB Chris Lammons

Breakout player: Thompson said last week that junior tight end Jerell Adams has had as good a preseason camp as anybody on the team. The 6-6, 242-pound Adams caught 13 passes last season and has three career touchdown catches. Look for him to blow those numbers out of the water this season. He has the size and speed to be a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses and is playing with a renewed sense of focus and confidence. Adams will be an integral part of the offense in 2014 and could make a run for All-SEC honors.

Most important game: The Georgia game has typically set the tone in the East race, and this year it could very well be an elimination game. The good news for the Gamecocks is that the Sept. 13 game is in Columbia, South Carolina, where they've won 18 in a row.

Biggest question mark: There's some experience returning at safety, but as many as three true freshmen could end up playing at cornerback this season. In fact, the Gamecocks are moving their most experienced safety, Brison Williams, to cornerback to fill that void. All three of the first-year cornerbacks are talented and have shown promise in camp. But it's never ideal to be in a position where you have to play so many newcomers in the secondary right away.

Upset special: The Gamecocks came dangerously close to losing to Florida at home last season. But with the game shifting to the Swamp this season, that Nov. 15 road trip has danger written all over it as Steve Spurrier returns to his alma mater, where he has won only once (2010) as South Carolina's coach.

Key stat: South Carolina is one of only two teams in the SEC, along with Alabama, to hold teams below an average of 21 points per game each of the past three seasons.

They said it: "We don't have any superstars, but we have a lot of guys who know how to win." -- Spurrier

Preseason predictions

ESPN Stats & Info: 8.9 wins

Bovada over-under: 9.5

Our take: It's SEC championship or bust for the Gamecocks. OK, maybe not, but they've done just about everything but win an SEC title each of the past three seasons. To win an SEC title, they first have to get to the game. Their one and only trip to Atlanta came in 2010. The Head Ball Coach has a veteran offensive line, marquee running back and depth in the defensive line and at linebacker. While we're not ready to pick the Gamecocks to win the SEC championship game, we are picking them to get there and win 10 or more games for the fourth straight season.

Syracuse Orange season preview

August, 18, 2014
8/18/14
10:30
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Syracuse Orange:

Key returners: QB Terrel Hunt, RB Prince-Tyson Gulley, WR Ashton Broyld, LT Sean Hickey, LG Rob Trudo, DT Eric Crume, LB Dyshawn Davis, LB Cameron Lynch, CB Brandon Reddish, S Durell Eskridge

Key losses: RB Jerome Smith, C Macky MacPherson, LB Marquis Spruill, DT Jay Bromley, CB Ri'Shard Anderson, S Jeremi Wilkes

Most Important 2014 games: Sept. 27 vs. Notre Dame (in East Rutherford, New Jersey), Oct. 3 vs. Louisville, Nov. 8 vs. Duke, Nov. 22 at Pitt, Nov. 29 at Boston College

Projected win percentage (from ESPN Stats & Information): 51 percent

Over/under Vegas odds: 5.5

[+] EnlargeTerrel Hunt
AP Photo/Phil SearsTerrel Hunt passed for 1,638 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. He added another 500 yards rushing with seven touchdowns on the ground.
Instant impact newcomer: John Miller best fits this bill, as he is a junior college transfer who saw just limited time last season, his first with the Orange. Now the former Los Angeles Harbor College player looks to build off a spring that saw him emerge as one of the team's most improved players and as a leader on offense. Miller is the front-runner to start at center for Syracuse and should allow others around him to stay in their natural positions.

High point from 2013: Terrel Hunt hit Josh Parris for an 8-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left in the regular-season finale to top rival Boston College 34-31 and earn win No. 6. This was a major boost for Syracuse, which ended up beating Minnesota in the Texas Bowl to finish 7-6 in Year 1 of both the Scott Shafer and the ACC eras. It might have been a watershed moment for Hunt, too, as he enters 2014 looking to take the next step as a leader of this offense.

Low point from 2013: Losing big to heavyweights Florida State and Clemson is one thing. But a 56-0 loss at Georgia Tech, a team that went just 7-6 and enters 2014 with major questions, is pretty much inexcusable. It stands out even more considering the Orange entered the game coming off a win at NC State and won two straight contests right after the Atlanta trip. (It also stands out after Shafer made his thoughts known about Atlanta winters, and after the Twitterverse replied as the Twitterverse is wont to do.)

Best-case scenario for 2014: Hunt evolves as a passer and as a runner, orchestrating an offense that has made it known it would like to push the tempo in 2014. Unlike last year, the Orange enter the season knowing who their No. 1 quarterback is, and that proves beneficial as they race out to an early 3-0 start. The front seven steps up and Syracuse is able to steal a win during a tough three-game stretch against Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State, emerging on the other end ready to tackle a final month that concludes with road contests at former Big East foes Pitt and BC. Syracuse improves in Shafer's second season, hitting his goal of at least eight wins, and the future looks bright for a program looking to emerge as a legitimate No. 3 team in a top-heavy Atlantic division behind FSU and Clemson.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: Hunt struggles to command the offense with more responsibility, the defense can't seem to make up for the loss of Bromley up front and the Orange get eaten alive by a tough schedule. A trip to Wake Forest provides a reprieve during a five-game stretch that features the aforementioned teams above plus Clemson on the other end. No matter, though, as a physically beaten team staggers into the final month with only NC State as a winnable game. Syracuse wins four games, its worst season since Doug Marrone's inaugural 2009 campaign.

They said it: "I was happy with the way we finished the season. I thought both Terrel [Hunt] and the wide receivers did a nice job finishing up with the victory over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl, but we need to take it to the next level to get to the next level. We're always going to really work hard to run the football. I believe in running the football, I believe in stopping the run. I think that's where it starts with our philosophy. But in this day and age, you've got to be able to open it up, and we put the onus on our passing game, our wide receivers, to take their game up." -- Shafer, on the passing game becoming more explosive

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