10 players who'll decide winner of College Football Playoff
What players could play a huge role in college football’s national championship picture? Athlon examined 10 key players to watch – some well-known names, as well as a few under-the-radar players at essential positions for 2014.
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Jacob Coker, QB, Alabama
Alabama’s biggest personnel concern could be its secondary, but this team needs to have stability under center to win another national title. Coker transferred from Florida State after spring practice and is eligible immediately after graduating in three years. The Alabama native completed 21 of 41 passes for 295 yards and one touchdown in two seasons of game action with the Seminoles and is being pushed by Blake Sims for the starting job this fall. Coker doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards every week, but in key games against Ole Miss, LSU and Auburn, can he make the necessary throws to lead Alabama to victory? With a strong defense and rushing attack, Coker won’t be asked to do much. However, his performance in key SEC contests could be the difference in Alabama winning the SEC or missing out on the college football playoff.
Getty ImagesStreeter Lecka
Shon Coleman, OT / LaDarius Owens, DE, Auburn
Auburn has been hit hard by injuries in the trenches this offseason. Defensive end Carl Lawson suffered an ACL injury in the spring and is expected to miss a significant chunk of 2014. Guard Alex Kozan suffered a back injury and has been ruled out for the year. Kozan’s absence means Auburn will have a revamped left side of the line after tackle Greg Robinson left for the NFL. Kozan and Lawson are huge losses, as both players were slated to be All-SEC performers. Coleman is expected to win the left tackle job to replace Robinson, but he’s under extra scrutiny with the lost of Kozan. On the defensive side, Owens is the Tigers’ most experienced option at end. In 14 games last season, he recorded 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks and will be asked to increase his production in 2014.
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY SportsAndy Marlin
Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State
Florida State’s roster is arguably the best in the nation in 2014 and it’s hard to establish a (is there one?) glaring weakness. The receiving corps needs new targets to emerge with the departure of Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, and the punting situation is a concern. However, the defensive tackle position is the one to watch this year. The Seminoles must replace standout Timmy Jernigan (left early for the NFL Draft), while Jacobbi McDaniel and Demonte McAllister expired their eligibility. Jernigan anchored the run defense in 2013, which limited opponents to just 118.7 yards per game in ACC contests last year. Goldman is slated to move from the outside to the interior to help replace Jernigan, and the junior has the size (320 pounds) to hold the point of the attack against opposing run offenses.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsKim Klement
Wesley Green / Al Harris Jr. / Carlos Lammons, CBs, South Carolina
Even though the Gamecocks’ defensive line must be revamped due to the departures of Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles, the biggest concern for coordinator Lorenzo Ward has to be the secondary. South Carolina lacks proven options at cornerback, and three incoming freshmen could see major snaps in 2014. Al Harris Jr., Wesley Green and Carlos Lammons were key pickups on the recruiting trail for Ward and coach Steve Spurrier (pictured), and it wouldn’t be a surprise for all three to make starts this year. With Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia through the first three weeks, South Carolina’s secondary and young defensive backs will be tested.
Getty ImagesScott Halleran
Jordon James, RB, UCLA
With 14 returning starters from a team that went 10-3 last season, the expectations are high for UCLA. The Bruins are picked by some to win the Pac-12 and should be in the mix for a playoff spot if they can claim that title. Quarterback Brett Hundley led the team with 160 rushing attempts last season, while James ranked third with 101 carries. Keeping Hundley healthy is critical to UCLA’s title hopes, and coordinator Noel Mazzone needs to find more playmakers to take the pressure off of his junior quarterback. James opened 2013 with three consecutive 100-yard efforts but suffered an ankle injury early in the year and never appeared to be at full strength the rest of the way. If James is capable of handling 20-25 carries per game, it will allow Mazzone to save Hundley from unnecessary wear and tear.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY SportsRichard Mackson
Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma
Was Knight’s standout performance vs. Alabama a sign of things to come? In Oklahoma’s 45-31 upset win over the Tide in the Sugar Bowl, Knight gashed the secondary for 348 yards and four scores. Prior to the bowl, Knight had just five TD passes over his previous seven games. While Knight’s one-game brilliance is grabbing all of the offseason headlines, let’s not overlook his output against Kansas State (171 passing yards, 82 rushing yards). He certainly has room to improve and will benefit from having a clear path to the starting job. Oklahoma has one of the Big 12’s top defenses so Knight doesn’t have to throw for 300 yards every week for the Sooners to reach the playoff. However, if Oklahoma is to make the leap from fringe contender to national champion, Knight has to take a take step forward in his development this season.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY SportsChuck Cook
Xavien Howard, CB, Baylor
Baylor’s explosive offense garnered most of the attention last season, but the turnaround on defense was just as critical to winning the Big 12. The Bears allowed only 4.8 yards per play in conference games in 2013 and held league opponents to 25.7 points per game. Only four starters return for 2013, and coordinator Phil Bennett has to fill three spots in the secondary. Howard played in 13 games as a reserve last season and recorded five tackles and one interception. The sophomore has good size (6-foot-2) and speed to become a shutdown corner for the Bears. Baylor’s front seven should be solid, but Howard’s development (and that of other new starters in secondary) will be critical to keeping the Bears in the mix for a spot in the playoff.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY SportsJerome Miron
Joel Heath / Damon Knox, DTs, Michigan State
Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds were unsung cogs on the defensive front in 2013 and are slated to be replaced by Knox and Heath in 2014. Heath played in nine games last season, while Knox recorded 22 tackles and one sack in 14 appearances. True freshmen Enoch Smith and Malik McDowell will push for time, but all four players will be needed in the rotation up front. In order to keep junior Shilique Calhoun attacking off the edge, the tackles have to hold their own and prevent teams from keying too much on the ends. If Heath and Knox can be successful replacements, Michigan State’s defensive line should be among the best in the nation once again.
Getty ImagesMatthew Holst
Damian Swann, CB, Georgia
Senior quarterback Hutson Mason also deserves a mention in this space, but Georgia’s secondary is the bigger concern heading into 2014. This unit ranked No. 84 nationally in pass efficiency defense and intercepted a SEC-low two passes in conference games in 2013. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is revamping the defensive backfield and plans to play a handful of young players. Swann is the team’s most experienced option at cornerback with 28 career starts under his belt. The senior will have a handful of new faces surrounding him this year, which means he'll have to be a leader for the secondary and handle most of the duties against opposing teams' top receivers.
Getty ImagesJoe Robbins
Andre Yruretagoyena, OT, Oregon
Yruretagoyena (at the right in the picture above) will be thrown into the fire right away in 2014, as Oregon has a huge test against Michigan State – and All-America defensive end Shilique Calhoun – in Week 2. He was slated to work as a backup tackle this year, but an injury to left tackle Tyler Johnstone pressed the junior into the starting lineup. The Ducks were slated to have one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines this year, especially if the play of guards Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt improved after an inconsistent 2013. Yruretagoyena does not have a career start but played in eight games last season. The Arizona native was considered a four-star recruit in the 2011 signing class and ranked as the No. 85 prospect in the 247Sports Composite. Protecting the blindside of Mariota will be crucial to the Ducks’ Pac-12 title hopes.
Getty ImagesDoug Pensinger
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