- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Spring practice is in the books, and now the long, frustrating wait for the 2014 college football season (and inaugural four-team playoff) begins.
While spring practice is generally a time in which coaches like to build depth and avoid injuries, there were a few significant developments around the country.
Projected top-25 teams like Clemson, Nebraska and USC named starting quarterbacks, but teams like Alabama, LSU, North Carolina, Texas A&M and Wisconsin didn't, leaving their competitions open through the summer and into preseason camp.
Oregon lost its best wide receiver to injury, while Georgia welcomed back a handful of players from ailments.
Defending BCS national champion Florida State remains No. 1 in our fourth edition of the 2014 Way-Too-Early Top 25. Alabama remains No. 2, Oklahoma and Auburn have moved up a couple of spots, and Oregon and Michigan State dropped a few notches.
Say hello to Texas Tech, Kansas State and Nebraska and goodbye to Texas, Central Florida and Washington.
Here is the Post-Spring Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25:
The Seminoles were probably a year ahead of schedule in winning a BCS National Championship last season, and they will be heavy favorites to repeat as ACC champions and make the four-team College Football Playoff this coming season. Along with bringing back Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at quarterback, the Seminoles expect to have five seniors starting on the offensive line, which is always a recipe for success, as well as tight end Nick O'Leary and receiver Rashad Greene. FSU has to replace key contributors on defense, including tackle Timmy Jernigan and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, but it has recruited well on that side of the ball for the past few years. Defensive linemen Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman and defensive backs Ronald Darby, Jalen Ramsey and P.J. Williams might each be a potential NFL first-round pick in the future.
Alabama didn't learn much about its quarterback competition this spring, mostly because anticipated starter Jacob Coker is still enrolled at FSU and won't transfer to Alabama until this summer. Coker, who was Winston's backup last season, is expected to graduate from FSU next month and then join Alabama's team for offseason workouts. He will be the man to beat in the battle to replace AJ McCarron when preseason camp opens. Blake Sims was the No. 1 quarterback during the spring game, completing 13 of 30 passes for 178 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown. Alabama's offensive line, which was a surprising trouble spot last season, looked better with freshman Cameron Robinson at left tackle and junior college transfer Leon Brown at right guard. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is still searching for two reliable cornerbacks and more pass-rushers.
Quarterback Trevor Knight took control of the OU offense this spring as he tries to build on his breakout performance against Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. With former quarterback Blake Bell moving to tight end and Kendal Thompson transferring to Utah, Knight was the only experienced quarterback on OU's roster this spring. Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, a walk-on who joined OU this winter, is ineligible to play this coming season because of NCAA transfer rules. Knight completed only 5 of 14 passes for 53 yards with one interception in the spring game but otherwise performed well during the spring. The Sooners still have unresolved issues at tailback, where Keith Ford and Alex Ross battled for the job in the spring. Incoming freshmen Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine might have a chance to win the job during preseason camp.
It's hard to imagine Tigers coach Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense being any more explosive than it was last season, but it might even be better in Year 2. Quarterback Nick Marshall looked much more comfortable throwing the ball during the spring, completing 13 of 22 passes for 236 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions in the spring game. Junior college transfer D'haquille "Duke" Williams was impressive this spring and might emerge as another big-play weapon on offense. The wide receiver caught five passes for 88 yards with one touchdown in the spring game. Sophomore Shon Coleman emerged as the projected starter at left tackle, where he might replace Greg Robinson, a potential first-round pick in Thursday's NFL draft. Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne emerged as the top contenders to replace departed tailback Tre Mason.
5. Oregon Ducks
With quarterback Marcus Mariota and five starting offensive linemen coming back, the Ducks expected to spend the spring fine-tuning their offense and finding someone to replace De'Anthony Thomas' versatility. But then star receiver Bralon Addison tore knee ligaments in spring practice in April, an injury that could shelve him for the entire 2014 season. Addison had 61 catches for 890 yards with seven touchdowns last season, when Oregon's top four receivers accounted for 72 percent of the team's receiving yards. The Ducks also lost top receiver Josh Huff and No. 3 receiver Daryle Hawkins, who were seniors last season. Redshirt freshman Devon Allen, a sprinter and hurdler on the school's track team, caught two touchdown passes in Saturday's spring game, and redshirt freshman Darren Carrington had one touchdown reception.
The defending Big Ten champions are undergoing a complete overhaul on defense, as coordinator Pat Narduzzi must replace stars like Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis. The Spartans also lost starting defensive tackles Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds, who were underrated contributors to one of the country's best defenses in 2013. Sophomore Darian Hicks emerged as a potential starter at cornerback during the spring, and junior Taiwan Jones was the No. 1 middle linebacker, where he will have the not-so-envious task of filling Bullough's shoes. The good news: Quarterback Connor Cook looked to be in complete control of the offense, and tailback Jeremy Langford is back after running for 1,422 yards with 18 touchdowns last season. The Spartans must replace three starters from what was a very good offensive line last season.
Slowly but surely, Urban Meyer is starting to transform the Buckeyes into the type of team he used to win two BCS National Championships at Florida. The Buckeyes have perhaps the country's best defensive line and a much-improved secondary. With ends Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington and tackle Michael Bennett coming back, the Buckeyes should be even better up front defensively this coming season. New co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, a former coordinator at Arkansas and Wisconsin, also is making his mark in the secondary, where the Buckeyes were more aggressive and fundamentally sound during the spring. Quarterback Braxton Miller missed the spring while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, but he is expected to be ready by the start of preseason camp. Ohio State's biggest concern is its offensive line, where Meyer has named only two starters: left tackle Taylor Decker and guard Pat Elflein. Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay could provide immediate help at center once he enrolls this summer.
With quarterback Hutson Mason taking control of the offense and tailback Todd Gurley finally looking healthy, Georgia seems to be fine on offense heading into the offseason. The Bulldogs believe their offensive line should be better, especially with tackle John Theus finally recovering from a wrist injury that prevented him from doing much in the weight program the past couple of seasons. Gurley, who was dogged by groin and ankle injuries last season, looked explosive in the spring and will enter the 2014 season as a leading Heisman Trophy candidate. Tailback Keith Marshall, who missed much of last season with a torn ACL in his right knee, is expected to be at full strength by June. Georgia's defense, however, remains a big concern under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Bulldogs have three legitimate All-SEC candidates in linebackers Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd and Ramik Wilson. But Pruitt complained about many of his defensive linemen being overweight and out of shape, and Georgia's secondary was inconsistent throughout the spring. The Bulldogs might have to count on junior college transfer Shattle Fenteng and a trio of incoming freshmen for immediate help.
9. Baylor Bears
The Bears are in the unfamiliar territory of defending a Big 12 championship for the first time in school history. With quarterback Bryce Petty coming back for his second season as a starter, coach Art Briles believes his fast-paced spread offense will be even more efficient, which is a scary thought for opposing defensive coordinators. The Bears are still trying to shore up their offensive line, where they have to replace All-American guard Cyril Richardson. Sophomores Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin will probably share carries as they replace departed tailback Lache Seastrunk, who ran for 1,177 yards with 11 touchdowns last season. Briles believes Baylor's defense will be much improved after allowing 23.5 points per game in 2013. Briles said his team's defensive line is the best he has had at Baylor, and sophomore cornerback Xavien Howard and Georgia transfer Chris Sanders have helped shore up the secondary.
The Gamecocks will undoubtedly miss quarterback Connor Shaw's production and toughness, but Dylan Thompson looked more than ready to take over the offense during the spring. He will play behind what many believe will be Steve Spurrier's best offensive line at USC, and tailback Mike Davis is back after running for 1,183 yards with 11 touchdowns last season. South Carolina's biggest concerns are on defense, where it has to replace star end Jadeveon Clowney, the potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, and linemen Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton. The secondary also has two big holes with cornerbacks Vic Hampton and Jimmy Legree departing. Safety Brison Williams is solid, but the Gamecocks might have to look at a handful of incoming freshmen to fill holes in the secondary during preseason camp.
After losing defensive stalwarts like Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds, as well as coordinator Derek Mason, who left to become Vanderbilt's head coach, Cardinal coach David Shaw has to like the way his defense performed this spring. End Henry Anderson emerged as Stanford's next great pass-rusher, and Blake Martinez and Joe Hemschoot are battling to replace Skov. Converted wide receiver Kodi Whitfield will have a chance to start next to Jordan Richards at safety. On offense, quarterback Kevin Hogan had a good spring and might be ready to take the next step as a passer, especially with so many receivers returning. Kelsey Young and Barry Sanders, son of the NFL legend, are battling to replace Tyler Gaffney, who ran for 1,709 yards with 21 touchdowns last season. Stanford must replace four starting offensive linemen -- left tackle Andrus Peat is the only returning full-time starter -- but perhaps no school has done a better job of recruiting linemen over the past four years.
12. UCLA Bruins
With junior quarterback Brett Hundley coming back to school, the Bruins are probably the team to beat in the Pac-12 South this coming season. UCLA has more depth on its offensive line, which has been plagued by injuries the past couple of seasons and was dinged up again in the spring. Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche, 6-foot-7 and 327 pounds, might slide into the left guard spot where Xavier Su'a-Filo played last season. Tailback Jordon James is healthy, and the Bruins like the depth behind him in Steven Manfro, Paul Perkins and redshirt freshman Craig Lee. Linebacker Myles Jack also might continue to see some playing time on offense, although he didn't run the ball much during the spring. Kenny Orjioke emerged as a starting outside linebacker, where he will replace departed All-American Anthony Barr, and end Owamagbe Odighizuwa is back after missing all of last season with a hip injury.
13. LSU Tigers
If the Tigers are going to maintain pace with SEC West rivals Alabama and Auburn, their defense might have to carry the load early in the season. LSU coach Les Miles hasn't named quarterback Zach Mettenberger's replacement, as sophomore Anthony Jennings struggled during the spring game after a disappointing performance in a 21-14 win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Jennings, a sophomore from Marietta, Georgia, had two interceptions returned for touchdowns in LSU's spring game. He is being pushed by freshman Brandon Harris of Bossier City, Louisiana, who graduated from high school early and enrolled at LSU in January. Making matters worse for whoever starts at quarterback, the Tigers lost top receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. to the NFL draft. The good news: Miles and his staff have stockpiled tailbacks, including incoming freshman Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 recruit in the country according to ESPN RecruitingNation.
14. Texas A&M Aggies
To a man, the Aggies insist they are out to prove that they were more than a one-man show the past two seasons, when former quarterback Johnny Manziel was running through opposing defenses. Either sophomore Kenny Hill or freshman Kyle Allen will have the unenviable task of replacing Manziel, who became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy in 2012. Senior Matt Joeckel looked to be on the outside looking in and transferred to TCU last month. Hill missed much of the spring because of a suspension for his arrest on public intoxication charges. He is expected to return to the team this summer and is probably the man to beat in the competition. Either way, the Aggies are loaded with running backs and feel good about their offensive line and deep receiver corps. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder also believes he has finally stockpiled enough depth to put an SEC-caliber defense on the field, although the Aggies might still be a recruiting class or two away from being a truly elite defense.
With returning quarterback Joel Stave missing much of the spring with a shoulder injury, former junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy might have put himself in position to win the starting job in preseason camp. McEvoy, who redshirted at South Carolina in 2010 and then transferred to a junior college in 2011, started three games at safety for the Badgers last season. He moved back to quarterback this spring and brings more mobility to the position. In 2012, McEvoy passed for 1,943 yards with 25 touchdowns while running for 414 yards with six touchdowns at Arizona Western College. Wisconsin's receiver corps remains a big concern, especially after it lost star wideout Jared Abbrederis, so coach Gary Andersen might prefer a more mobile quarterback to pair with tailbacks Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. Regardless, the Badgers figure to rely heavily on their star tailbacks once again this coming season.
Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora seems to have all the pieces in place to run his hurry-up, spread offense, but he didn't name a starting quarterback during spring practice. Junior Marquise Williams, who passed for 1,698 yards with 15 touchdowns and six interceptions last season, still seems to be the favorite, although freshman Mitch Trubisky is still in contention. The Tar Heels are stacked at running back with T.J. Logan and Khris Francis and at receiver, where Quinshad Davis, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard are big-play threats. If UNC is going to contend for an ACC Coastal Division title, it will have to improve mightily on defense after finishing last in the ACC in rushing defense last season, allowing 182 yards per game.
A funny thing happened during quarterback Everett Golson's celebrated return to Notre Dame this spring: a quarterback battle seemed to develop. Although Golson looks like the favorite to start this season after missing 2013 because of an academic suspension, redshirt freshman Malik Zaire played well enough in spring to keep Golson motivated during the summer and preseason camp. As we've seen over the past couple of seasons, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly isn't afraid to rotate quarterbacks, although Golson seems tailor-made to run his offense. The most encouraging sign during spring was the development of tailback Greg Bryant, who redshirted last season because of a knee injury. Bryant, who was the No. 2 running back in the 2013 recruiting class according to ESPN's RecruitingNation, might be the workhorse the Irish have desperately needed in the backfield. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder spent his first spring trying to find pass-rushers to replace Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt without much luck.
18. Iowa Hawkeyes
Just when it seemed that coach Kirk Ferentz had lost his touch, the Hawkeyes rebounded from a disappointing 4-8 record in 2012 to finish 8-5 last season. With quarterback Jake Rudock and a talented receiver corps coming back, Iowa might be the team to beat in the Big Ten West in 2014. Rudock, a junior from Weston, Florida, passed for 2,383 yards with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last season. If he cuts down on his mistakes this season, Ferentz might be more willing to open up the offense, especially with top receivers Kevonte Martin-Manley and Tevaun Smith returning. Derrick Willies, a redshirt freshman from Rock Island, Illinois, also emerged as a potential big-play threat during the spring. Iowa's biggest concerns are in the secondary, where three of four starting spots still seem up for grabs. The Hawkeyes must replace three starting linebackers who combined to make more than 100 career starts and nearly 1,000 tackles, but Quinton Alston, Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman looked like more-than-capable replacements during the spring.
19. Florida Gators
After the Gators limped to a 4-8 finish last season, their worst campaign since going winless in 1979, Will Muschamp enters the 2014 season on perhaps the hottest coaching seat in the country. But Muschamp believes the hiring of former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will resurrect the Gators' woebegone offense. Quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy again after breaking his leg last season, and he looked much more comfortable in Roper's spread offense during the spring. He completed 18 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Muschamp believes the Gators are deeper at tailback, with Mack Brown and Kelvin Taylor returning, and receiver, which has been a big disappointment the past few seasons. Sophomore Demarcus Robinson looked more mature, and Quinton Dunbar and Ahmad Fulwood also performed well in the spring. Florida's defense is inexperienced, but Muschamp said he doesn't expect it to slip much after losing a boatload of talented players to the NFL draft.
20. USC Trojans
New Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian didn't wait long to put his stamp on the program, installing a hurry-up, spread offense like many of USC's Pac-12 rivals are using. The Trojans averaged about 120 offensive plays during spring scrimmages, a vast increase compared to the program under former coach Lane Kiffin. Quarterback Cody Kessler, who threw for 345 yards with four touchdowns in USC's 45-20 victory over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, held off Max Browne for the starting job. Kessler will be surrounded by plenty of talented playmakers on offense, including tailbacks Javorius "Buck" Allen, Tre Madden and Justin Davis. Star receiver Marqise Lee is gone, but Nelson Agholor led the Trojans with 918 receiving yards and six touchdown catches last season. USC must replace three starters on the offensive line, and depth up front remains a concern because of NCAA scholarship reductions. USC's defense is loaded up front, led by All-American end Leonard Williams.
Which Red Raiders team will show up in 2014? The team that started 7-0 in coach Kliff Kingsbury's first season or the team that lost five consecutive games before upsetting Arizona State 37-23 in the National University Holiday Bowl? The Red Raiders still figure to be potent on offense, especially with quarterback Davis Webb coming back. Webb completed 28 of 41 passes for 403 yards with four touchdowns in the bowl game, and he is the only returning scholarship quarterback after Baker Mayfield transferred to Oklahoma and Michael Brewer transferred to Virginia Tech. Keeping Webb healthy this coming season will be paramount to Texas Tech's success. The Red Raiders also have to find new big-play receivers after losing Jace Amaro and Eric Ward. Keep your eye on Jakeem Grant, D.J. Polite-Bray and Devin Lauderdale. Senior Kenny Williams, who led the Red Raiders with 497 rushing yards last season, moved to linebacker and is a projected starter. He might play on both sides of the ball, as well as special teams, this coming season.
22. Clemson Tigers
In a stunning spring development, senior Cole Stoudt was named Clemson's starting quarterback after Chad Kelly was dismissed after the spring game for conduct detrimental to the team. Stoudt, from Dublin, Ohio, completed 47 of 59 passes for 415 yards with five touchdowns and zero interceptions as Tajh Boyd's backup last season. Highly regarded freshman Deshaun Watson of Gainesville, Georgia, the country's No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect for 2014 according to ESPN's RecruitingNation, might still be a factor after he recovers from a broken collarbone suffered during spring practice. The Tigers are still looking for a new No. 1 receiver after Sammy Watkins left early for the NFL draft, and it looks like coach Dabo Swinney might use a tailback-by-committee this coming season. The defense produced 14 sacks in the spring game, a product of one of the country's best defensive lines, led by end Vic Beasley.
If we've learned anything during Bill Snyder's previous 22 seasons at Kansas State, it's that the Wildcats will undoubtedly begin the season underrated. After winning a Big 12 title in 2012, the Wildcats slipped to 8-5 last season. But after losing four of its first six games, Kansas State rebounded to win six of its last seven, including a 31-14 victory over Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. A big reason for the turnaround was quarterback Jake Waters' rapid improvement. He threw for 271 yards with three touchdowns against the Wolverines and looked to have even better command of the offense this spring. The Wildcats solidified their offensive line by moving All-Big 12 guard Cody Whitehair to left tackle. Dalvin Warmack, a touted incoming freshman, might have a chance to become the No. 1 tailback during preseason camp.
Coach Bo Pelini's love-hate affair with the Big Red Nation seems to be warm and fuzzy again, especially after the Cornhuskers knocked off Georgia 24-19 in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. Pelini showed more of his soft side during the spring, entering Nebraska's spring game with, of all things, a furry cat. But Nebraska's fickle fan base won't be laughing if the Cornhuskers lose four games or more for the seventh straight season under Pelini. Tommy Armstrong Jr. won the starting quarterback job, and he will get plenty of help from a deep running back core, which includes Ameer Abdullah and bruising runner Imani Cross. The offensive line figures to be better with left guard Jake Cotton and left tackle Alex Lewis (Colorado transfer) bringing a degree of toughness that has been missing. Nebraska's front seven on defense should be stout, led by end Randy Gregory and tackle Vincent Valentine.
It might be a big season for Wolverines coach Brady Hoke, who is out to prove that last season's 7-6 finish was an anomaly. Hoke hasn't been shy about questioning the leadership and toughness of last season's team. But if Michigan is going to rebound in Hoke's fourth season in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines will have to be much better on both lines of scrimmage. Quarterback Devin Gardner struggled last season, but it certainly didn't help that he was sacked a whopping 34 times. Even worse, Michigan lost All-Big Ten tackle Taylor Lewan and right tackle Michael Schofield. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier wants the Wolverines to run the ball downhill, so finding five capable starters on the line will be a priority in preseason camp. Wide receiver Freddy Canteen, a midyear enrollee, was perhaps the biggest surprise of the spring and might give UM a much-needed deep threat in the passing game.
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