Top 10 dark horse contenders for the 2014 national title
Predicting college football's national champion is never an easy task. In addition to combing through schedules, returning starters, players lost and statistics, there are several factors impossible to account for, like injuries and luck. While most of college football's national title winners are likely to come from within the top 10 of most preseason polls, there are always a few dark horses. Let’s take a look at 10 teams that might fit the mold for the upcoming season.
Joe Robbins - Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Replacing quarterbackTajh Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant won’t be easy, but the Tigers won’t take a huge step back in wins. Clemson will turn to senior Cole Stoudt and true freshman DeShaun Watson at QB, while the receiving corps is stocked with promising talent. And as long as Chad Morris is calling the plays, the Tigers should be fine on offense. Six starters return from a defense that allowed just 22.2 points per game in 2013. Vic Beasley is one of the nation’s top defensive linemen, and the secondary will get a boost from a healthy Mackensie Alexander at cornerback. Settling the offensive line and getting Stoudt acclimated to the starting lineup will be two areas to watch early on. Clemson isn’t short on talent and has opportunities for key victories against the ‘Noles, South Carolina and Georgia.
Getty ImagesTyler Smith
Sure, Florida was a massive disappointment with its 4-8 record in 2013, but there’s certainly no shortage of talent in Gainesville, and the Gators catch key East Division swing games against Missouri and South Carolina at home. Coach Will Muschamp is squarely on the hot seat and improving the offense was his top priority this spring. New coordinator Kurt Roper plans to speed up the tempo and allow quarterback Jeff Driskel to work more out of the shotgun. Those changes should help an attack that averaged just 18.8 points per game last year. Driskel has to play better for Florida to challenge in the East, but a bigger problem on offense is the line and the inconsistent play of the receivers. Lost in the struggles with the ball last year was a defense that led the SEC in fewest yards per play allowed in conference games (5.09).
Getty ImagesDon Juan Moore
Everything that could have gone wrong seemed to go that way for Mark Richt’s team in 2013. The Bulldogs suffered a rash of injuries on offense, ranked near the bottom of the nation in turnover margin (-7) and lost four games by a touchdown or less. Expect Georgia to rebound in 2014, as 14 starters return, and the addition of Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator should pay immediate dividends. New quarterback Hutson Mason gained valuable experience after Aaron Murray suffered a torn ACL late last year, while the Bulldogs have one of the SEC’s top collection of skill talent if running back Todd Gurley and receiver Malcolm Mitchell stay healthy. Georgia’s secondary is a significant concern – especially with Clemson and South Carolina to open the year – but the front seven should thrive under Pruitt’s watch.
Getty ImagesScott Cunningham
Never count out Bill Snyder’s team in the Big 12 discussion. The Wildcats finished 2013 on a tear, winning six out of their last seven, and there’s plenty of optimism after the strong finish: QB Jake Waters returns after throwing for 2,469 yards and 18 TDs in his first season with the Wildcats, and dynamic receiver Tyler Lockett is one of the nation’s best. However, there are concerns for a defense that returns only five starters. First-team All-Big 12 safety Ty Zimmerman will be missed, and linebacker Blake Slaughter departs after recording 110 stops last year. How quickly the new faces in the front seven emerge could be the difference in contending for the Big 12 title. With games against three projected top 10 teams (Auburn, Oklahoma and Baylor), KSU has a chance to build a strong case as a playoff team.
Getty ImagesChristian Petersen
The Tigers have won at least 10 games in four straight seasons, but most believe LSU is due to take a step back in 2014, as this program has lost a significant talent to the NFL over the last two years. This team will be young in a few spots, but Les Miles isn’t short on talent. The passing attack may struggle early in the year with a new QB (Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris) throwing to a revamped receiving corps. Expect to see the Tigers lean on one of the SEC’s top o-lines and a backfield that features top freshman Leonard Fournette. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator John Chavis will be relying on several underclassmen to improve a defense that allowed 5.7 yards per play in SEC contests last year. Cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson are two of the rising stars in the SEC.
Getty ImagesStacy Revere
Everett Golson is back under center for Notre Dame this season, and his return should provide a boost for an offense that struggled with consistency in the passing attack in 2013. Golson will have plenty of help from a solid offensive line, along with an intriguing group of playmakers at running back. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has to rebuild the front seven, as nose guard Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt departed for the NFL. Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith is an emerging star, and cornerback KeiVarae Russell could challenge for All-America honors. The Fighting Irish need their offense to carry the team early, but key matchups against Stanford, Florida State and USC are later in the year, which should allow Kelly’s team plenty of time to reload.
Getty ImagesJoel Auerbach
The Rebels have made steady improvement under Hugh Freeze, winning 15 games over the last two seasons. The talent level in Oxford is also on the rise, as Ole Miss recruited the No. 8 class in 2013 and the No. 15 haul in 2014. With more talent and depth, combined with the roster turnover at Texas A&M and LSU, the Rebels are ready to make a move in the SEC West. The defense should rank among the best in the SEC: The continued development of tackle Robert Nkemdiche should help a unit that allowed only 23.7 points per game last year, and safety Cody Prewitt is one of the nation’s most underrated players. Depth on the offensive line is one of Freeze’s biggest concerns this season, but a healthy Bo Wallace at quarterback should make a big difference for the attack.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY SporJohn David Mercer
Transitioning to the Big 12 from the Mountain West is a difficult assignment, and as expected, TCU has suffered its share of ups and downs over the last two years. But after a 4-8 mark last season, the Horned Frogs could be ready to turn a corner. Seven of TCU’s eight losses were by 10 points or fewer, with four coming by a three points or fewer. After struggling to win close games in 2013, coach Gary Patterson decided to switch schemes on offense, hiring Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham to install a no-huddle, up-tempo attack. The scheme change should help TCU’s offense improve, especially if Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel settles into the No. 1 QB role. The defense is one of the Big 12's best. The Horned Frogs led the conference in rush defense and allowed only 4.8 yards per play in league contests last year.
Getty ImagesPeter G. Aiken
Coach Chris Petersen inherits a team that made steady improvement under Steve Sarkisian and now is tasked with pushing the program to the next level. Cyler Miles is expected to start at QB but was suspended in spring practice due to an off-field incident. Miles was reinstated in time for summer workouts and should take over the No. 1 job after serving a one-game suspension. While a new go-to running back must emerge to replace Bishop Sankey, the Huskies could have one of the Pac-12’s top o-lines. Meanwhile, seven starters return from a defense that yielded only 22.8 points per game in 2013. This unit could be even better in 2014, as linebacker Shaq Thompson and cornerback Marcus Peters rank among the best d-men in the Pac-12. With UCLA and Stanford visiting Seattle, the Huskies can play spoiler in the North.
Getty ImagesStephen Lam
The Badgers return only eight starters from last year’s nine-win team, but a favorable schedule should soften the blow. As expected, the offensive line and rush will lead the way. RB Melvin Gordon is a Heisman contender, and the line could be the best in the Big Ten. Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy are battling to start at QB, and the Badgers need new faces to emerge at receiver with the departure of Jared Abbrederis. The revamped front seven on defense will get an early test against LSU to open the season, but coach Gary Andersen has promising talent in freshmen ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James, along with sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel. Helping Wisconsin’s case as a sleeper team is a schedule that does not include Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State in crossover play.
Getty ImagesMike McGinnis
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