The biggest concerns for Top 15 CFB Playoff contenders
There are many really good teams in America but no perfect ones. Even reigning national champion Florida State has issues to address entering 2014. Let's examine the primary areas of improvement for the Top 15 playoff contenders this fall. -- By Steven Lassan/Athlon
Streeter Lecka/Harry How/Leon Ha
No. 15 Wisconsin: QB, front seven
The Badgers return only eight starters and have concerns at quarterback and on the front seven on defense. However, a favorable schedule should keep coach Gary Andersen’s team in the hunt for the West Division title.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY SportsJeff Hanisch
No. 14 USC: depth
New coach Steve Sarkisian’s biggest obstacle is depth. The Trojans are short on scholarships due to NCAA sanctions and an injury to a couple of players in the starting lineup could be difficult to overcome.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY SportsKelvin Kuo
No. 13 Notre Dame: QB, front seven
The Fighting Irish have concerns on both sides of the ball, but the offense should get a boost with the return of quarterback Everett Golson. A revamped front seven highlights the defense, as new coordinator Brian VanGorder has to replace standout linemen Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY SportsRick Osentoski
No. 12 Stanford: RB, defense
A brutal schedule awaits Stanford in 2014. The Cardinal play five road games against teams projected to finish in the final top 25. Personnel-wise, coach David Shaw needs to find a replacement for running back Tyler Gaffney, as well as fill the voids on defense left behind by linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, linemen Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro and safety Ed Reynolds.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsKirby Lee
No. 11 Michigan State: defensive depth
The Spartans check in at No. 11 in Athlon’s projected top 25 for 2014, but coach Mark Dantonio’s team should be higher. This team doesn’t have many glaring concerns, and the defense is one of the best in the nation. Finding replacements for a few defensive standouts (Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen) is the biggest priority for the Spartans.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsKirby Lee
No. 10 Baylor: revamped defense
Coordinator Phil Bennett has brought noticeable improvement to Baylor’s defense over the last few years, and the Bears ranked second in the Big 12 in 2013 (league-only games) by allowing only 4.8 yards per play. Just four starters return for 2014, but the defensive line could be one of the best in the Big 12, and senior Bryce Hager is back to anchor the linebacking corps. The biggest concern for this unit is the secondary, which has to replace standout safety Ahmad Dixon and cornerbacks K.J. Morton and Demetri Goodson. Also, keep an eye on offense with left tackle Spencer Drango. The standout lineman had back surgery last season and needs to quickly return to full strength in order for Baylor to repeat as Big 12 champs.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY SportsKevin Jairaj
No. 9 South Carolina: CB, D-line
Coordinator Lorenzo Ward will have his hands full through the first couple weeks of the season, as the Gamecocks take on three explosive offenses in Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia. The defensive line returns only one starter (J.T. Surratt), but there’s enough talent returning to ensure there’s not a huge drop in production from last year’s unit that featured Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. But the secondary is a bigger concern for Ward, as South Carolina could lean on three true freshmen for major snaps: Carlos Lammons, Wesley Green and Al Harris Jr. With the turnover up front and the inexperience in the secondary, the Gamecocks could use more 3-4 fronts in 2014.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY SportsMarvin Gentry
No. 8 Georgia: secondary
New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt inherits a defense with potential, but this unit allowed nearly 30 points per game in 2013. Pruitt helped Florida State’s defense rank among the nation’s best last season and should work a quick turnaround in 2014. The front seven is among the best in the SEC, but the secondary is a significant concern. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was dismissed prior to spring practice, and cornerback Shaq Wiggins transferred to Louisville, while safety Tray Matthews landed at Auburn. The overall depth has been depleted with the player departures, and Pruitt could look to the freshmen ranks for answers. Junior college transfer Shattle Fenteng is expected to help at cornerback or safety, while true freshman Malkom Parrish and redshirt freshman Aaron Davis are also in the mix.
Getty ImagesSam Greenwood
No. 7 UCLA: offensive line
The Bruins struggled to find consistency with this unit in 2013, and line coach Adrian Klemm now must find a replacement for standout guard Xavier Su’a-Filo. UCLA played a handful of young players up front last season, which should pay dividends for 2014. Additionally, Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche is expected to solidify a spot on the left side. With more snaps, this unit should emerge as a strength for the Bruins. However, this unit will be tested right away against an underrated Virginia defensive line in the opener and against Texas in Week 3. Another position to watch for UCLA: The rushing attack. Coach Jim Mora needs to find a consistent presence on the ground to take some of the pressure off of quarterback Brett Hundley.
No. 6 Oregon: defensive transition
Second-year coach Mark Helfrich doesn’t have many glaring concerns to address this offseason, but the defense is under the direction of first-year coordinator Don Pellum after Nick Aliotti retired. Pellum is no stranger to Oregon football, as he’s worked in Eugene for the last 21 seasons. However, this will be his first opportunity to coordinate the Ducks’ defense. What tweaks will he install into the scheme? Personnel-wise, there’s not a ton of concerns, but Oregon needs to develop depth on the interior of the line and sort out its new starters in the secondary.
Getty ImagesSteve Dykes
No. 5 Auburn: lines of scrimmage
It’s a bit cliché, but teams have to be strong in the trenches in order to win in the SEC. Auburn’s offensive line was one of the best in the nation in 2013 and was projected to rank near the top once again. However, guard Alex Kozan will miss 2014 due to a back injury, which adds to a giant void on the left side with Greg Robinson leaving for the NFL. The defensive front is also uncertain, as Carl Lawson could miss most of 2014 due to a torn ACL. Sophomores Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel are promising, and there’s depth with the addition of junior college recruits DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence. However, after giving up 162.1 rushing yards per game last season, Lawson's injury and the departure of Dee Ford to the NFL, the Tigers head into 2014 with concerns (albeit small) about the defensive line.
No. 4 Oklahoma: offensive playmakers
The Sooners return 14 starters from a team that went 11-2 last year, and there are few glaring concerns for coach Bob Stoops. Quarterback Trevor Knight ended 2013 with his best performance of the year, throwing for 348 yards and four scores against Alabama. For Knight to continue his growth as a passer, the coaching staff needs to find new weapons at receiver. Three of last year’s top four receivers are gone, including Jalen Saunders (61 catches). Junior Sterling Shepard is an All-Big 12 receiver, but who steps up into the No. 2 and No. 3 roles? Is it Durron Neal or K.J. Young? How about Dannon Cavil, Derrick Woods or Jordan Smallwood? True freshman Michiah Quick is another name to watch this fall.
Getty ImagesStreeter Lecka
No. 3 Ohio State: offensive line
It’s a tough call to pick the No. 1 concern for the Buckeyes, as the offensive line, receiving corps, secondary and linebacking corps are all worth a mention. However, the offensive line is perhaps the biggest concern for coach Urban Meyer, especially with quarterback Braxton Miller’s injuries last season. Keeping Miller healthy is the No. 1 priority this year, as Kenny Guiton is no longer around to provide insurance. Left tackle Taylor Decker is the lone returning starter, but guard Pat Elflein had a promising stint at the end of 2013. The left guard, center and right tackle spots are still up for grabs. Winning the Big Ten – especially on Nov. 8 at Michigan State – and contending for a playoff spot rests largely on how quick the Buckeyes can develop their offensive line.
Getty ImagesJoel Auerbach
No. 2 Alabama: QB, CB
Opposing quarterbacks completed only 55.5 percent of their throws against Alabama’s defense in 2013, but the cornerback position is still a concern for Nick Saban heading into the fall. Eleven of the 13 touchdown passes allowed by the Crimson Tide last season came in three games (Oklahoma, Auburn and Texas A&M), and cornerback Deion Belue must be replaced. Bama could call on freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey to help in 2014. The QB position has generated most of the offseason buzz in Tuscaloosa, but with a strong rushing attack and defense, Alabama won’t need too much from its QB. Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is considered the favorite to start over Blake Sims. Coker completed 18 of 36 passes for 250 yards with the Seminoles in 2013 but does not have a start in his college career.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY SportsMatthew Emmons
No. 1 Florida State: defensive tackle, WR, P
The Seminoles have a few departures on the interior, including standout Timmy Jernigan. Eddie Goldman and Nile Lawrence-Stample are solid, but which players emerge to help with depth? Redshirt freshman Keith Bryant or one of the touted true freshman: Derrick Nnadi, Arthur Williams or Demarcus Christmas could help in 2014. At WR,tTalent certainly isn’t an issue. FSU boasts an All-American receiver Rashad Greene on one side and standout tight end Nick O’Leary attacking over the middle. But the spot opposite of Greene is up for grabs, with seniors Christian Green and Jarred Haggins competing for snaps, along with sophomore Jesus Wilson and freshmen Ermon Lane and Traivs Rudolph. It’s easy to overlook special teams, but punter Cason Beatty needs to be more consistent and will face competition from Jonathan Hernandez and Larry Lawson III.
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY SportsMelina Vastola
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