By Brian Kalchik @BrianKalchik on June 9, 2014
With the college football season fast-approaching, the slate is clean for every team from the Alabama Crimson Tide to the Purdue Boilermakers, which finished 1-11 in 2013. While each major team has focused on addressing their weaknesses in spring ball and in the months leading up to the start of the season, they can always count on what they do best to win games. Here now are the strengths of each top-25 college football team heading into 2014.
BYU's running game was one of the best in the nation last year, racking up 3,476 yards. In their eight wins last season, BYU averaged 314.5 rushing yards. The Cougars also had more than 40 attempts in all but one game last year, proving their dedication to the run. The Cougars lose only one senior offensive lineman off of last year's team and return star running back Jamaal Williams, who ran for over 1,200 yards last season.
Duke had the No. 4 offense in the ACC last year, which helped the Blue Devils win the ACC Coastal Division title. The Blue Devils return most of their passing attack, including quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette and big-play receivers in Jamison Crowder and tight end Braxton Deaver. With coach David Cutcliffe's expertise in coaching quarterbacks, expect an even better season for the Blue Devils offense.
The North Carolina Tar Heels lost star quarterback Bryn Renner to graduation last year, but they also have a dual-threat at quarterback to replace him in Marquise Williams. As a spot-starter, Williams threw for over 1,500 yards and ran for 536, which led the team. Now that Williams is expected to be the full-time starter this season, he will only get better heading into his third season with the Tar Heels.
Led by quarterback Rakeem Cato, the Marshall Thundering Herd have one of the best passing attacks in college football. The Herd threw for over 200 yards in every game in 2013 and had multiple passing touchdowns in 12 of their 14 games. Not only is Cato coming back, but he'll also have his favorite target back in receiver Tommy Shuler. Shuler led the Herd with 106 catches for 1,165 yards and was second in touchdowns with 10.
While the Clemson offense lost plenty of key playmakers, the Tigers' defense, most notably their pass rush, returns everyone from a season ago. Back is Vic Beasley, who will be one of the top pass rushers this year. Beasley led the team with 13 sacks and had 23 tackles for loss last season. Without the likes of Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant on offense, Beasley and the defense will have to carry them until they get on track.
Don't let the end of last year fool you. Taylor Kelly was not just one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12, but he was one of the best in the country. Poor games against Stanford and Texas Tech will make him fly under the radar, but Kelly will have a bounce-back year in 2014. He threw for over 3,500 yards and had a two-to-one touchdown to interception ratio in 2013. Kelly also ran for over 600 yards and scored nine times.
The Fighting Irish lost a good player in Bennett Jackson to the NFL Draft, but in the secondary, they are still young and very talented. The unit, helped by a good pass rush up front, held their last three opponents in 2013 to under 200 yards passing. With players like Elijah Shumate, Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell returning, the unit can be even better in 2014 despite a depleted front seven.
After a poor 2-4 start to begin their 2013 season, the Kansas State Wildcats bounced back and won six of their next seven games, including a dominating win against Michigan in their bowl game. The turnaround was led by quarterback Jake Waters. In that seven-game stretch, Waters threw for 14 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Backup Daniel Sams serves as the running quarterback, and he ran for over 800 yards last season.
The Ole Miss Rebels won eight games last year, but they would not have even got to that number if not for the play of their secondary. The Rebels only surrendered 10 touchdowns in the air and gave up two or more touchdown passes in just three games. With three starters returning, including All-American safety Cody Prewitt, the Rebels' secondary will be a key this season if they are to contend in the SEC.
The reason why Baylor has been successful over the past four seasons has been because of the passing game, and most notably, the quarterback position. In 2013, Bryce Petty became the next great Baylor quarterback as he threw for 4,200 yards, 32 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Despite losing key players like Tevin Reese and Lache Seastrunk to the NFL, Petty will continue to roll and look to claim the Heisman Trophy.
Wisconsin once again boasted one of the most productive rushing offenses in college football last year. The Badgers were ranked No. 8 in the nation with 283.8 rushing yards per contest. Melvin Gordon decided to return for his junior year after rushing for over 1,600 yards last season. Now that backup James White is gone to the NFL, Gordon will get even more carries this season.
South Carolina lost a lot from last season. On offense, the Gamecocks lost Connor Shaw and Bruce Ellington, and on defense, they lost players like Jadeveon Clowney and Victor Hampton among many others. This season, the Gamecocks will have to rely on their running game, which has one of the best backs in college football in Mike Davis. Davis ran for 1,100 yards last year and will be featured more this season.
The Missouri Tigers lost a good quarterback in James Franklin to the NFL, but they also have a good quarterback replacing him in Maty Mauk. In spot-duty last year, Mauk threw for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns in four games. Mauk won't sneak up on anybody this year, especially with Missouri's top three receivers from a year ago either gone to the NFL or suspended from the team.
The Georgia Bulldogs have one of, if not the best running back tandems in the country in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. When both are healthy, they are among the best running backs in the country. When Marshall was lost for most of last season, Gurley picked up the slack. Gurley rushed for almost 1,000 yards against some of the toughest defenses in the country. If Marshall is healthy, expect both to have excellent seasons this year.
USC will feature new playmakers on offense and on most of the defense, but at linebacker, the Trojans have several good players. Despite losing Devon Kennard, the Trojans return both Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson, both of whom will be seniors this year. Pullard led the team in tackles with 94, including 5.5 for loss, and Dawson had 35 tackles as a reserve. Junior Anthony Sarao also will contribute after recording 44 tackles last year.
Losing both Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue to the NFL might make running back a weakness at LSU, but the Tigers have more good backs on the roster. Kenny Hilliard had seven touchdowns last year, Terrence Magee ran for eight touchdowns and highly-touted running back Leonard Fournette will be expected to produce right away. The Tigers' running game will have to carry the offense that is without last year's starting quarterback and receivers.
With the return of quarterback Brett Hundley, hopes are high for the Bruins in 2014. Hundley is looking to not only get in the discussion as a Heisman Trophy candidate but also as one of the top quarterbacks in next year's draft. He is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in college football after throwing for 24 touchdowns and running for 11 last year. Hundley will only get better this season despite the loss of Shaq Evans.
Michigan State's offense struggled for the first half of the 2013 season, but once Jeremy Langford became the starter at running back, the Spartans' offense finally broke out. Langford went on to rush for over 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns, including 84 yards against Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Despite losing three seniors on the offensive line, Langford and the Spartans running game will be the focal point in 2014.
The Stanford running game lost three of their top backs to graduation, but they return all of their key receivers. Back are players like speedster Ty Montgomery, who led the team in receptions with 61, Devin Cajuste, who had 28, and Kodi Whitfield, who had 16 as a sophomore. With their top backs gone as well as four key offensive linemen, don't be surprised if the Cardinal air it out more in 2014 with a good group of receivers.
If the Oklahoma Sooners want to contend for another Big-12 Championship, the defensive line will determine how far they can go. After not losing one senior starter this offseason, the Sooners have most of their corps back that recorded 16 of the team's 33 sacks. That's not even counting rush-linebacker Eric Striker, who had 6.5 by himself, including three in the Sugar Bowl. If the D-line improves this season, watch out for the Sooners.
The Ohio State Buckeyes lost several key players on offense from last year's team, but one of the few holdovers is star quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller is a Heisman Trophy candidate this season after throwing for 2,094 yards and rushing for 1,068. Without four offensive linemen who graduated, and playmakers like Carlos Hyde and Philly Brown now in the NFL, Miller will have to carry the load himself this season.
In his first season as a starter at Auburn, quarterback Nick Marshall led the Tigers to the brink of a National Championship. Marshall threw for over 1,900 yards and 14 touchdowns while also running for over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. While Marshall didn't have to show off his arm last season, he did make some big plays. Marshall will have to carry the load this season on the ground and through the air without star running back Tre Mason.
Alabama lost star quarterback A.J. McCarron to the NFL, but the Crimson Tide retain all three of their top running backs from a season ago in T.J. Yeldon, Kenyon Drake and Derrick Henry. The three combined for 2,311 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns last year. With a new quarterback under center this season, the trio will have to run into eight and nine-man boxes with opponents trying to dare the Crimson Tide to make plays in the passing game.
The key to Oregon's success in the past is not the playmakers with tremendous speed, but it is the linemen who block for them. 2014 will be no different. With players like offensive tackles Jake Fisher and Tyler Johnstone and center Hroniss Grasu returning for their junior and senior seasons, this Ducks' offensive line could be the best out of any of the previous units in the past decade.
As long as the Florida State Seminoles have Jameis Winston taking the snaps, the Seminoles' greatest strength will be the quarterback. Winston won the Heisman Trophy last year as a freshman after throwing for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. Despite losing several key players around him to the NFL, Winston has plenty of talented players coming back around him, and his chances to repeat as the Heisman winner are very good.
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