10 College Football Teams We Wish Would Do 'Hard Knocks' in 2014
HBO and NFL Films mined television gold with the debut of the documentary series Hard Knocks in 2001. The inside look at a different NFL training camp each season exposes a national audience to reserves and role players who might otherwise go unnoticed and humanizes the athletes who entertain millions every game day.
Each summer since the show was relaunched in 2007, NFL fans wonder which team will occupy the Hard Knocks spotlight. But imagine if the series turned its camera onto the weeks of camp leading up to college football's Week 1.
A variety of programs could produce highly entertaining episodes of the series for various reasons. However, Hard Knocks is at its best when it features extraordinary characters, challenging circumstances for teams to overcome and unique locker room dynamics.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Perhaps the nation's most recognized and certainly the most decorated program of the last half-decade is the perfect candidate for the Hard Knocks treatment.
The Crimson Tide are coming off a season most programs would deem a rousing success: 11 wins, an appearance in the Sugar Bowl and a top-10 ranking. Alabama isn't most programs, however, and the sting of late-season losses to Auburn and Oklahoma is sure to have head coach Nick Saban working double time.
Alabama also welcomes aboard Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator. The former head coach endured tumultuous runs at USC and Alabama rival Tennessee, where his faux pas were typically media fodder.
Saban and Kiffin's relationship would make for an interesting television dynamic.
"He’s a great asset to our staff, in terms of his knowledge and experience," Saban said on the May 1 SEC teleconference call, via CoachingSearch.com. "It’s been great for me, too, to have a guy that’s been a head coach before and had some of the issues and problems we have."
Kiffin is faced with replacing a three-year starting quarterback from a competition spilling into preseason camp. Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is in contention with Blake Sims and Cooper Bateman, all three of who Saban told Andrew Gribble of AL.com remain in the race.
It has all the ingredients for a hit series. At the very least, it couldn't be any worse than a rumored reality show starring McCarron and fiancee Katherine Webb.
Appalachian State Mountaineers
Appalachian State was the face of the Football Championship Subdivision in the 2000s. The Mountaineers won national championships in 2005, 2006 and 2007, and scored arguably the biggest upset of all time when it stunned Michigan to open the 2007 campaign.
This season, Appalachian State embarks on a new challenge in its first year as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision. The initial learning curve looks steep.
Paul Myerberg of USA Today projects Appalachian State at No. 119 among all FBS teams in 2014, noting:
Since famously beating Michigan in 2007, ASU has gone 0-6 against the FBS: LSU in 2008, ECU in 2009 and 2012, Florida in 2010, Virginia Tech in 2011 and Georgia in 2013. What does this mean? In short, that some vintage ASU teams – including several Southern Conference champions – haven't been up to snuff against a difficult slate of FBS competition.
A Hard Knocks-style look into the development of a new FBS program could be fascinating. The angle of Appalachian State beginning this new phase in the same place where it entered the national stage—Ann Arbor, Michigan—only adds to the drama of the Mountaineers' first FBS season.
Coming off its surprise run to the SEC championship and BCS National Championship Game, Auburn's bar is set high. What does head coach Gus Malzahn have planned for an encore?
A second Tigers quarterback pupil of Malzahn's to win the Heisman Trophy would be an impressive curtain call.
Imagine had television cameras caught the early stages of Cam Newton's meteoric rise with Malzahn as his offensive coordinator in 2010. That's precisely what a Hard Knocks preseason with Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall could be like in 2014.
Marshall is building considerable buzz this offseason for college football's prestigious award. His rushing statistics were impressive at 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns, but his passing numbers were more modest: 142-of-239 for 1,976 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions.
But Malzahn told Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated that Marshall was only getting pieces of the playbook a season ago, particularly early on:
We tried to give him bits and pieces of the offense, and [offensive coordinator Rhett] Lashlee and myself were in the evaluation process of him probably the first four games, figuring out what his strengths were and trying to build around those things.
Surely fans can expect more offensive innovation from Malzahn in his second season at the controls.
Watching the development of a potential breakout star is enticing. Seeing a guru like Malzahn operate with an entire team is must-watch television.
Florida State Seminoles
Defending national champion. Home to the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. A chance for a repeat with potential pitfalls abounding.
The plot for a Florida State series is already scripted, and the star is perhaps the most ideal subject for a documentary series.
Quarterback Jameis Winston is the face of college football in 2014 as the defending Heisman winner, and his performance under the game's most glaring spotlight makes for an interesting subplot.
"The pressure on these kids today is magnified 10-fold. That’s the nature of the beast," Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher told Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel shortly after Winston was cited for shoplifting crab legs from a grocery store in April.
Sonnone writes Winston addressed his ongoing maturation in December. That process will play out under a national microscope, and a Hard Knocks look into the Seminoles might give a clearer presentation.
Michigan State Spartans
With guest appearances by musician Rich Homie Quan and a talented roster, Michigan State enters the 2014 season as a potential national championship contender.
The Spartans matured from little brother, as they were famously dubbed by Michigan running back Mike Hart in 2007, into Big Man on Campus of the Big Ten. Their surprising 2013 culminated in a thoroughly dominating win over Ohio State in the conference title game, followed by an impressive Rose Bowl defeat of Stanford.
Michigan State made winning with a tough-nosed defense and old-school offensive philosophy fun—so much so that the typically stoic head coach Mark Dantonio was all smiles by season's end.
In his Rose Bowl postgame press conference per MSUSpartans.com, Dantonio said he was "sort of living the dream."
Dantonio might be living the dream to a whole new level in 2014. And a few weeks with the cameras going behind the scenes might just be enough to make the whole college football-watching nation chant, "Yes!"
The CBS-produced A Game of Honor chronicled Army and Navy in the buildup to their 2011 meeting. This insightful and emotional look into the two football programs and the rigorous process their players face each and every day is Exhibit A as to why Navy would be ideal for Hard Knocks.
Essentially, an examination of the Midshipmen goes beyond drills, locker room relationships, game preparation and even the classroom. As a member of the U.S. Naval Academy, the Mids are put through tests of far greater consequence than most of their college football peers.
Exhibit B as to why Hard Knocks and Navy would produce top-notch television: quarterback Keenan Reynolds. The Mids' third-year playmaker is one of the most exciting players in college football and a dark-horse Heisman candidate. His season is one that deserves documentation for a national audience.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Three simple words: Head Ball Coach.
Thus nicknamed South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier is college football's human soundboard. Never one to mince words, Spurrier is the perfect star of a behind-the-scenes series akin to Hard Knocks.
Spurrier is friends with renowned wrestling orator Ric Flair, and it shows in the Nature Boy-like zingers the Head Ball Coach often lobs at rivals Clemson and Georgia.
"I sort of always liked playing them that second game because you could always count on them having two or three key players suspended," he said of Georgia in a 2012 interview with ESPN.com (h/t USA Today).
In October 2012 after running back Marcus Lattimore was lost to injury, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney offered support, to which Spurrier replied before a Gamecocks pep rally crowd, per Yahoo! Sports:
A lot of quotes came across the country and I read one today from the head coach at our upstate school. You know, that school that used to beat us a lot that doesn't beat us much anymore, that one. Usually when that coach up there talks about South Carolina it's a bunch of garbage and a bunch of BS usually. But I have to agree with him on what he said the other day.
Just imagine what a more candid Spurrier might offer.
The Gamecocks are also a picture of consistency in recent years. Though no one on the current roster approaches the stardom of No. 1 NFL draft and former Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, running back Mike Davis is primed to become a household name.
Charlie Strong's historic first season as head coach at Texas is oozing with intrigue. The Longhorns have sputtered through an uncharacteristic dry spell since the 2009 season, eventually leading to Mack Brown's ouster.
Strong's challenge has a particularly intense spotlight on it at present, as the past NFL draft was Texas' first without a selection since 1937.
Producing NFL-ready talent is only one small part of the much bigger picture. The Texas fanbase is passionate and holds high expectations. Strong sparked a minor controversy last month when, per Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman, he said the Longhorns were not quite ready to compete for a national championship.
Strong and his staff addressing these and other challenges with a new cast of players certainly has Hard Knocks potential.
So, it's not Hard Knocks—UCLA head coach Jim Mora said exactly that at the April 28 launch for Pac-12 Networks' The Drive. But the Bruins' weekly appearance on The Drive is the closest college football has to going inside the locker room with a team in Hard Knocks-style this season.
"You’re going to see the good, you’re going to see the bad," linebacker Myles Jack told me. "You just see the Saturdays with our helmets on...Hopefully, you see we're just regular guys, college athletes who like to have a good time."
Part of the appeal of a series like Hard Knocks or The Drive is the way in which players who are typically seen behind a facemask are humanized. The Bruins work because of the unique cast of characters like Jack and quarterback Brett Hundley.
UCLA is also a great fit for a starring role in a behind-the-scenes documentary because Mora has built the program into one competing for a Pac-12 championship.
Los Angeles is a city known for making stars and for breaking dreams. New USC head coach Steve Sarkisian knows that well, from the standpoint of a former Trojans assistant who helped make them the hottest ticket in town during the 2000s.
The 2014 season is Sarkisian's first audition for the most prominent starring role in the city's football scene. Much is expected of him, which he addressed in his first introduction as head coach in December 2013, via USCTrojans.com.
"We will not shy away from the expectations, we will embrace them. I came here to win championships and so did all these players," he said.
Indeed, expectations are high and this season will lay the groundwork for meeting them. Going inside with Hard Knocks would be an illuminating experience for viewers interested in how a big-time college football production is made.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.