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2014 Fall Camp Previews for Each College Football Top 25 Team

Greg WallaceFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2014

2014 Fall Camp Previews for Each College Football Top 25 Team

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    Jimbo Fisher and Florida State have high expectations to live up to this fall.
    Jimbo Fisher and Florida State have high expectations to live up to this fall.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    It’s almost here. As college football’s media days schedule enters its second week, the feeling that football is just around the corner gets more and more palpable.

    By August 1, most of the nation’s college football teams will have begun fall practice in preparation for the 2014 season, which kicks off in the final weekend of August.

    It’s a perfect time to look at what’s ahead for the nation’s top teams, what they have returning, what they need to work on and their biggest questions. Here’s a look at the nation’s top 25 (as determined by Bleacher Report’s latest top 25 poll) entering fall camp.

     

    *Returning starter totals from Athlon Sports. Quotes for ACC, SEC and Big 12 coaches and players were provided by ASAP Sports media days transcripts.

No. 25 Clemson

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    Cole Stoudt will be called upon to lead Clemson's offense this fall.
    Cole Stoudt will be called upon to lead Clemson's offense this fall.RAINIER EHRHARDT/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    11-2 (7-1 ACC) 

     

    Returning Starters

    12

     

    What to Watch For 

    Clemson is replacing its top passer, top receiver and top rusher from a team that averaged over 500 yards of total offense and 40 points per game. Tajh Boyd is the ACC’s all-time touchdown leader and No. 2 all-time passer, Sammy Watkins was a top-five NFL draft pick, and Rod McDowell was a 1,000-yard rusher.

    Will the Tigers be as potent with Cole Stoudt at quarterback, a backfield by committee, and receivers like Adam Humphries, Charone Peake, Mike Williams and a talented group of freshmen to pick up the slack?

    Probably not, but an improving defense keyed by returning All-America defensive end Vic Beasley will help. Watch for highly touted redshirt freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who looks ready for a big year after redshirting following groin surgery. Clemson also must find a left tackle to replace two-time All-ACC pick Brandon Thomas, with junior Isaiah Battle the top candidate.

     

    What They're Saying 

    "The seniors from last year, they've all set a standard for Clemson, and we're not going to, one thing we started out for the year after last year was that we all talked about that the standard was set, so now it's set to go beyond that standard. They've set a goal, we want to go above it.” —Stoudt on living up to the standard set by his predecessors.

No. 24 Texas Tech

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    Kliff Kingsbury hopes to build on a solid debut season at Texas Tech.
    Kliff Kingsbury hopes to build on a solid debut season at Texas Tech.LM Otero/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    8-5 (5-4 Big 12) 

     

    Returning Starters

    10

     

    What to Watch For 

    The Red Raiders lost their final five regular-season games but whipped Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl, which served as quarterback Davis Webb’s coming-out party. Webb will be the man under center for coach Kliff Kingsbury this fall, and he’ll be expected to take a step forward in his sophomore season.

    Tech will be good on offense, but there are questions on defense, where only three starters return, none in the secondary. The Red Raiders will be counting on an influx of junior college defensive linemen, which will create big competition in the trenches. If the defense is better, Tech will be too.

     

    What They're Saying 

    “I've been excited for Davis, to watch the progress he had. Having not been named a starter, he never pouted, never shut it down, just kept working. He knew he would get his chance. When he did, he made the most of it.

    "Statistically as a true freshman he had a pretty amazing year. Just have to cut down on the turnovers.  And that's something that he really did a good job of in the spring.” —Kingsbury on Webb’s development.

No. 23 Ole Miss

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    Ole Miss senior Bo Wallace will be leaned upon for leadership this fall.
    Ole Miss senior Bo Wallace will be leaned upon for leadership this fall.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    8-5 (3-5 SEC)

     

    Returning Starters

    14

     

    What to Watch For

    The Rebels actually have the SEC’s most experienced quarterback, senior Bo Wallace, and plenty of talent around him offensively, led by SEC Freshman of the Year Laquon Treadwell, who had 72 receptions as a freshman. He’ll be a focal point for the passing attack this fall, and sophomore tight end Evan Engram (who missed five games with injuries last fall) should play a big role, too.

    Nine defensive starters return, and sophomore defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche will be expected to take another step forward after flashing the potential that made him such a highly touted recruit as a freshman. Returning All-America safety Cody Prewitt will anchor the back end of the secondary. One of the big keys in camp will be finding a new punter and kicker, with both expected to be freshmen.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "I said on day one that my expectations were to make Ole Miss very relevant in the SEC West. And I think this year we should be that. That's my expectation, is that we should be competitive in every single game.  

    "Obviously I can't control the health of players, injuries, turnovers, how your quarterback plays. All of those factors will kind of determining the ending result of win/losses. There's no question in my mind we're a better football team today than we were in year one and year two and we should be very competitive." —Head coach Hugh Freeze on the Rebels’ ability to compete this fall.

No. 22 Texas A&M

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    Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin has plenty of pieces to replace this fall.
    Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin has plenty of pieces to replace this fall.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    9-4 (4-4 SEC)

     

    Returning Starters

    13

     

    What to Watch For

    All eyes will be on the quarterback position, where sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman Kyle Allen are battling (with no apparent separation) to replace Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

    Also look for redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones to emerge to replace NFL first-round pick Mike Evans, who left after just two seasons.

    A&M’s defense, which allowed an SEC-worst 32.2 points per game last fall, was expected to be better before sophomore standouts Isaiah Golden and Darian Claiborne were dismissed following aggravated robbery charges. Five seniors are projected starters, but the unit remains a work in progress entering fall camp.

    That could hold the Aggies back this fall.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "Our expectations are not going to change. We don't have in this business, and you know this, we don't have time for a bunch of rebuilding years. There would be another guy standing up here real quick. We're going to try to go out there, win every game, put our guys in a position to do so, with the mentality that we are here to win." —A&M coach Kevin Sumlin on the Aggies’ mentality this fall.

No. 21 Kansas State

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    Jake Waters will be a key to Kansas State's success this fall.
    Jake Waters will be a key to Kansas State's success this fall.Matt York/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    8-5 (5-4 Big 12)

     

    Returning Starters

    12

     

    What to Watch For

    K-State is looking to carry over momentum after winning six of its final seven games to close 2013. Senior Jake Waters (18 TDs, 2,469 passing yards) is the unquestioned starting quarterback, and talented wide receiver Tyler Lockett is his top target.

    One major issue will be tailback, where K-State’s No. 2 all-time rusher, John Hubert, has left, with senior DeMarcus Robinson leading a pack of challengers.

    Star defensive end Ryan Mueller (11.5 sacks in 2013) leads a defense which, once again, will mix in junior college transfers (Terrell Clinkscales at defensive tackle and D'Vonta Derricott at linebacker). That’s nothing new for a Bill Snyder team, though. The Wildcats host Auburn on a Thursday, Sept. 18, which could be the platform for a special season.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "It's easy to lose sight of the fact that, entering 2014, Kansas State has arguably the best offensive player and best defensive player in the conference in receiver Tyler Lockett and defensive end Ryan Mueller, not to mention one of the best interior offensive lines in the nation. For the second year in a row, there's a lot of attrition, which is commonplace for a school that relies so heavily on juco transfers, there's again a lot more to like than dislike when evaluating Kansas State's chances. When in doubt, don't doubt Bill Snyder." —Matt Brown, Sports on Earth

No. 20 Missouri

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    Maty Mauk will have a far bigger role for Missouri this fall.
    Maty Mauk will have a far bigger role for Missouri this fall.Associated Press

    2013 Record

    12-2 (7-1 SEC)

     

    Returning Starters

    10

     

    What to Watch For

    Missouri has loads of questions following a surprising SEC East title run, starting at receiver, where Dorial Green-Beckham’s dismissal, coupled with the graduations of Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington, leave new starter Maty Mauk with a paucity of options to throw to.

    Kony Ealy and Michael Sam will be missed on the defensive line, but Markus Golden and Shane Ray combined for 11 sacks last fall, so the drop-off isn’t as steep as you’d think.

    Mizzou returns only two starters combined in its secondary and linebacker corps, so competition will be fierce there this fall. The Tigers need Mauk—who was quite capable as James Franklin’s fill-in in 2013—to quickly find his footing as the full-time starting quarterback.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "When we go into a different year, as the years change, in '13 to '14, you lose your seniors, you bring new players in, it's a constant transition of the leadership and change of the team. That's what we work on all the time at Mizzou. 

    "We're excited about the year. We've worked very hard. We're honored to be in the SEC. I tell people all the time, it's like being in the NFL. Every time you play a game, you're playing a great team, anybody can beat you." —Missouri coach Gary Pinkel

No. 19 Nebraska

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    Ameer Abdullah is one of the nation's top returning tailbacks.
    Ameer Abdullah is one of the nation's top returning tailbacks.Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    9-4 (5-3 Big Ten)

     

    Returning Starters

    8

     

    What to Watch For

    Head coach Bo Pelini returns only eight starters from a team that won nine games for the sixth time in his Nebraska tenure. The coach earned a contract extension following an up-and-down season that included a sideline meltdown in a blowout loss to Iowa.

    Sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong is the favorite to win the starting role after throwing nine touchdowns and eight interceptions last season in relief of injured Taylor Martinez.

    A bigger question might be the Huskers offensive line, which returns only one starter from a year ago. Senior tailback Ameer Abdullah (1,690 yards in 2013) and senior wideout Kenny Bell will help the new signal-caller adjust.

    Colorado transfer Alex Lewis will be expected to hold down the left tackle spot and protect the new QB’s blind side. Nebraska has only two projected senior starters on defense, but junior end Randy Gregory (10.5 sacks a year ago) is a star.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "They want to show you when you get upset on the sideline or whatever, but unfortunately for me it gets very over-exaggerated where maybe I see another coach doing the same thing and they just brush by it or they don't even make a comment on it." —Pelini to CBS Sports. 

No. 18 Georgia

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    Hutson Mason has patiently waited for his turn behind Aaron Murray in Georgia's offense.
    Hutson Mason has patiently waited for his turn behind Aaron Murray in Georgia's offense.Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    8-5 (5-3 SEC)

     

    Returning Starters

    15

     

    What to Watch For

    2013 was hardly a season to remember for Georgia, thanks to a rash of injuries that left the offense a MASH unit. The Bulldogs hope 2014 is healthier and happier.

    At quarterback, senior Hutson Mason finally gets his shot at leading the offense following the graduation of Aaron Murray, who is statistically the SEC’s most prolific quarterback ever. He impressed in a brief audition after Murray tore his ACL and missed the final two games. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall form one of the nation’s top tailback duos.

    Even after losing three defensive backs to transfer, UGA returns nine defensive starters, led by sophomore end Ray Drew and senior linebacker Ramik Wilson, a first-team All-SEC selection. UGA must adjust to new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s scheme, but maybe a fresh start is just what this defense, which allowed a program-record point total last season, needs.

     

    What They’re Saying

    “Hutson has been in our system obviously going into his fifth year. But there's been no change in our system. He has the blessing of being with Coach (Mike) Bobo the entire time, being in the same system the entire time, seeing Murray doing it and having a chance to start a few games last year as well. I think we'll transition well.” —Georgia coach Mark Richt on Mason’s transition.

No. 17 Notre Dame

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    Brian Kelly has plenty of holes to replace in 2014 but plenty of talent, too.
    Brian Kelly has plenty of holes to replace in 2014 but plenty of talent, too.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    9-4

     

    Returning Starters

    11

     

    What to Watch For

    Notre Dame returns only four offensive starters, but that doesn’t include junior quarterback Everett Golson, who missed last season following an academic suspension. Sophomore tailback Tarean Folston and junior wideout DaVaris Daniels are impressive weapons who surround Golson, but the Fighting Irish must replace the left side of their offensive line after NFL first-round pick Zack Martin departed.

    The Irish are also retooling up front defensively, with only two returning starters in the front seven following the NFL departures of Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt. Florida transfer cornerback Cody Riggs figures to bolster an already strong secondary, but it’ll be interesting to see how the Irish respond to new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

     

    What They’re Saying

    “I think I’m more pleased with how he has responded to the off-the-field distractions. I’m fine with that. There are a lot of distractions when you are the quarterback at Notre Dame. I’m very pleased with the maturity he has shown with all the little things that go along with being the quarterback.” —Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to Steve Kaminski of MLive.com on Golson.

No. 16 North Carolina

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    Larry Fedora expects more from his North Carolina team this fall.
    Larry Fedora expects more from his North Carolina team this fall.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    (7-6, 4-4 ACC)

     

    Returning Starters

    16

     

    What to Watch For

    The Tar Heels hope to build on a 2013 in which they won six of their final seven games. Junior Marquise Williams is a dual-threat quarterback who’ll have no shortage of targets, headlined by Quinshad Davis, T.J. Thorpe and Ryan Switzer.

    Switzer tied an NCAA record with five punt return touchdowns last season. UNC allowed 24.5 points per game but yielded more than 20 points in just two of its final seven games. Senior Norkeithus Otis must emerge as a defensive leader following the departure of star end Kareem Martin, but the defense doesn’t lack for experience, as it could start as many as five seniors.

     

    What They’re Saying

    “We all learned a lesson last year, we don't want to start the season out the way we started out this past season, so that's a good thing if something good can come out of that. Unfortunately last year we had to play a lot of young guys, but fortunately for this year all those guys young got a lot of experience, so that's a good thing.” —UNC coach Larry Fedora on what his team learned from a 1-5 start in 2013.

No. 15 Arizona State

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    Todd Graham and Arizona State should be among the Pac-12's best teams this fall.
    Todd Graham and Arizona State should be among the Pac-12's best teams this fall.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    10-4 (8-1 Pac-12)

     

    Returning Starters

    10

     

    What to Watch For

    There are no doubts that Arizona State will score points, thanks to an offense led by senior quarterback Taylor Kelly, who accounted for 4,243 total yards a year ago. Tailback D.J. Foster is poised to emerge as one of college football’s most exciting players.

    The biggest concern is on defense, where ASU returns only two starters from a year ago and only one senior, free safety Damarious Randall. ASU will rely on a mix of freshmen, sophomores and junior college transfers as it attempts to rebuild its entire defensive line. At least early on, the offense will have to score plenty of points while the defense finds its footing.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "Don't underestimate the guys that are here, ... It's just how do we get them on the field? We have explosive guys, we just might have to be a little creative in what we're doing." —Arizona State coach Todd Graham to AZCentral.com's Doug Haller on ASU's defense.

No. 14 LSU

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    As usual, Les Miles and LSU will reload, not rebuild.
    As usual, Les Miles and LSU will reload, not rebuild.Bill Haber/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    10-3 (5-3 SEC)

     

    Returning Starters

    14

     

    What to Watch For

    LSU returns six offensive starters but must replace quarterback Zach Mettenberger, tailback Jeremy Hill and its top two receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.

    But Tigers coach Les Miles doesn’t rebuild. He just reloads. LSU fans are very excited about tailback Leonard Fournette, the nation’s top overall recruit, per 247Sports composite rankings. But the big key will be who emerges as the winner of a quarterback battle between sophomore Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris.

    LSU lost both of its defensive tackles from a year ago, but ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco are talented edge-rushers. The Tigers return two starting linebackers from a year ago, but the corps must become more consistent. However, LSU has recruited well and is equipped to recover from its losses across the board.

     

    What They’re Saying

    “There's a responsibility that the coaching staff has to see a void that will potentially occur and we have to recruit to that void. We have to make sure that our style of recruiting is the style of recruiting that we get an athlete that has a want to be something special, then that guy steps in and plays as a true freshman. Although not optimal, it's certainly something we've done.” —Miles on continually replacing NFL-bound talent.

No. 13 South Carolina

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    Steve Spurrier has built South Carolina into a college football power.
    Steve Spurrier has built South Carolina into a college football power.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    2013 Record

    11-2 (6-2 SEC)

     

    Returning Starters

    15

     

    What to Watch For

    South Carolina must replace gritty starting quarterback Connor Shaw, but senior Dylan Thompson got plenty of experience spelling him over the past two seasons and is a capable fill-in who must improve on his 55 percent completion percentage. Watch for sophomore wideout Pharoh Cooper, who came to South Carolina as a cornerback but has the skills to succeed at wide receiver and make a huge impact.

    The Gamecocks are revamping their defensive line after losing three starters from a year ago, including No. 1 overall NFL pick Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, who actually led the team with 9.5 sacks in 2013. There are questions behind senior Brison Williams at cornerback, which will be a focus early on.

     

    What They’re Saying

    “I'd rather win the SEC. I don't mind saying that. Personally that's the bigger trophy. But if we're not quite good enough, if it doesn't work out, we're not going to hang our hat and say, we’re not going to win the SEC. But there's other things out there.” —South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier on whether he’d rather win an SEC title or beat in-state rival Clemson.

No. 12 USC

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    Cody Kessler should be very comfortable in Steve Sarkisian's new scheme.
    Cody Kessler should be very comfortable in Steve Sarkisian's new scheme.Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    10-4 (6-3 Pac-12)

     

    Returning Starters

    16

     

    What to Watch For

    Quarterback Cody Kessler thrived down the stretch last season and should be even better in new coach Steve Sarkisian’s uptempo, no-huddle offense. And while star receiver Marqise Lee is gone, junior Nelson Agholor is one of the nation’s top all-around threats, and he should be even better this fall. USC is returning three starters on its offensive line but must replace highly touted center Marcus Martin.

    Eight starters will return defensively, but new coordinator Justin Wilcox has shifted the base scheme to a 3-4 as opposed to last season’s 5-2 scheme. All-America defensive end Leonard Woods will anchor the defense, and three starters return in the secondary. The biggest question might be how quickly players respond to Sarkisian’s staff.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "Yes, we take it one game at a time, but we know if we can win the Pac-12, we have a good chance of making (the four-team championship playoff) ... Once practice starts, it is go time." —Kessler to Teddy Renois of the Daily Comet on making the College Football Playoff.

No. 11 Baylor

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    Art Briles has built Baylor into a nationally recognized powerhouse.
    Art Briles has built Baylor into a nationally recognized powerhouse.LM Otero/Associated Press/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    11-2 (8-1 Big 12)

     

    Returning Starters

    9

     

    What to Watch For

    Baylor led the NCAA by averaging 52.4 points per game last season but only returns four offensive starters. Luckily, one of them is senior quarterback Bryce Petty, a Heisman Trophy candidate. He’ll still have plenty of talent around, led by senior wideout Antwan Goodley, who had 1,339 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago.

    One of the big stories early on will be how the Bears replace four starters on their offensive line. They also must replace three defensive line starters, but they have a deep rotation ready to step up and make an impact. The secondary only has one returning starter, junior safety Terrell Burt, and he missed spring practice.

     

    What They’re Saying

    “We still see ourselves, me, personally, our team, we see ourselves as the guy fighting hard, scratching hard to try to get some recognition and some respect. And so that's something we're having to deal with a little bit as perception, image of Baylor football, it's a little different than what it has been in the past thanks to our players. We have to learn how to prepare as the hunted as opposed to the hunter. We've always been the hunter. And I don't want to lose that edge and that attitude and that's something that we're working hard to maintain.” —Baylor coach Art Briles on his team’s new reputation.

No. 10 Wisconsin

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    Gary Andersen hopes to build on a solid debut season with Wisconsin.
    Gary Andersen hopes to build on a solid debut season with Wisconsin.John Raoux/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

     

    Returning Starters

    10

     

    What to Watch For

    The Badgers enter fall with questions at quarterback, where incumbent starter Joel Stave must fend off a challenge from fellow junior Tanner McEvoy. Whoever emerges will hand off to one of the nation’s top tailbacks in Melvin Gordon and run behind an offensive line that returns four starters. However, there are major questions at wideout, as last season’s top three receivers all departed.

    Wisconsin will also replace its entire front seven but will put a premium on making more big-impact plays like turnovers and sacks. All three defensive starters returning will be in the secondary.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "We’re a young football team, and I’m excited about this football team. But I do not view it as a rebuilding year. These kids expect to play at a high level every week, and we expect to jog out on the field and put ourselves in a position to win football games.” —Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen to Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal.

No. 9 Ohio State

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    Urban Meyer is counting on Braxton Miller to lead Ohio State's offense to glory this fall.
    Urban Meyer is counting on Braxton Miller to lead Ohio State's offense to glory this fall.Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    12-2 (8-0 Big Ten)

     

    Returning Starters

    12

     

    What to Watch For

    Ohio State averaged 511.9 yards per game of total offense last season, ranking seventh nationally. But there are concerns from a group that lost four starting offensive linemen and bruising tailback Carlos Hyde, one of the nation’s top all-around runners.

    Senior quarterback Braxton Miller is one of college football’s top dual-threat quarterbacks.

    The Buckeyes defensive line, led by ends Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, should be one of the Big Ten’s best, but replacing linebacker Ryan Shazier, the team’s leading tackler, is a concern—as is a secondary that returns only one starter in senior Doran Grant.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "We have to go win a Big Ten championship. I’m just so possessed right now about maximizing each unit. I have to make sure the quarterbacks are maximized, the running backs, the wide receivers, the tight ends, the defensive line, the linebackers. I’m so focused on that right now." —OSU coach Urban Meyer to Bill Rabinowitz and Tim May of The Columbus Dispatch.

No. 8 UCLA

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    Jim Mora Jr. has UCLA on the cusp of something special this fall.
    Jim Mora Jr. has UCLA on the cusp of something special this fall.Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    10-3 (6-3 Pac-12)

     

    Returning Starters

    16

     

    What to Watch For

    UCLA appears poised for a big season in the Pac-12 thanks to the return of junior quarterback Brett Hundley for another campaign as the starting quarterback. There are questions at receiver, but junior Devin Lucien is expected to step into a starting role. Tailbacks Jordon James and Paul Perkins will handle the carries by committee.

    Sophomore linebacker Myles Jack returns after being named the Pac 12’s Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year, an impressive feat. Departed linebacker Anthony Barr must be replaced along with his pass-rushing skills, but the Bruins should be just as good if not better this fall defensively.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "We need to win Pac-12 championships and Rose Bowls. We need to be in the national title picture. We need to continue to graduate our student athletes. We’re really just getting started. We’re two years. That’s nothing.” —UCLA coach Jim Mora Jr. to Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times.

No. 7 Stanford

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    David Shaw and Stanford are among college football's elite programs.
    David Shaw and Stanford are among college football's elite programs.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    11-3 (7-2 Pac-12)

     

    Returning Starters

    13

     

    What to Watch For

    Stanford returns only four starters on offense, but one is junior quarterback Kevin Hogan, a steady leader who threw for 20 touchdowns against 10 interceptions last fall. Replacing four starters on the offensive line (senior left tackle Andrus Peat is the only returnee) is a serious concern, but senior wideout Ty Montgomery (61 receptions, 958 yards, 10 touchdowns) gives the offense a major weapon.

    Defensively, the likes of Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy are gone, but plenty of talent remains, led by junior linebacker A.J. Tarpley and senior safety Jordan Richards. Stanford’s new starters must prove they belong quickly, but they’ve learned from some excellent role models.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "That's what we talk about: Having a program, not a group of players. And the guys understand that, and they appreciate it, you know? Trent Murphy, he's excited that there's not going to be a drop-off defensively with him leaving. Not just because he was a great player, but he played extremely well within the scheme on top of being a great player." —Stanford coach David Shaw to USA Today's Paul Myerberg on his next-man-up philosophy.

No. 6 Oklahoma

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    Oklahoma expects Trevor Knight to build on his great end to 2013.
    Oklahoma expects Trevor Knight to build on his great end to 2013.Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    11-2 (7-2 Big 12)

     

    Returning Starters

    16

     

    What to Watch For

    Oklahoma returns 16 starters, and that doesn’t even count sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight, who gashed Alabama for 348 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-31 upset last season. Sophomore tailbacks Alex Ross and Keith Ford will try to hold off talented incoming recruit Joe Mixon.

    Defensively, OU returns nine starters, led by first-team All-Big 12 junior defensive end Charles Tapper (5.5 sacks) and returning Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Dominique Alexander, as well as returning Freshman All-American corner Zack Sanchez. The expectations surrounding the Sooners will be heightened this season, and rightfully so.

     

    What They’re Saying

    “They’re not sitting back thinking about that and not doing what they need to do moving forward. I think, more than anything, it’s made them hungrier to build on it and to keep improving.” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops to Athlon Sports.

No. 5 Oregon

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    Marcus Mariota's return to college football was huge for Oregon's 2014.
    Marcus Mariota's return to college football was huge for Oregon's 2014.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    11-2 (7-2 Pac-12)

     

    Returning Starters

    14

     

    What to Watch For

    The Ducks averaged 45.5 points per game last fall, ranking tied for third nationally. They also return eight starters on offense, led by the entire offensive line and quarterback Marcus Mariota, who spurned the NFL in favor of playing his junior season.

    There are questions at wide receiver as Oregon will be without its top four pass-catchers from last season, but a deep backfield led by junior Byron Marshall, the Pac-12's top returning rusher, will make a big difference.

    New defensive coordinator Don Pellum returns five starters, led by senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Oregon must replace three starters in the secondary and two on the defensive line.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "I think anytime you go through something more than once you better be more efficient and better from your end of things. There are always adjustments and that's kind of the fun thing about this. Your roster changes so much from year to year in college football. The leadership, the vibe, and that's where you fall back on your culture and how we've done things for a long time." —Oregon coach Mark Helfrich on his second season to Bruce Ely of OregonLive.com.

No. 4 Alabama

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    Nick Saban is looking for a different attitude from his Alabama team this fall.
    Nick Saban is looking for a different attitude from his Alabama team this fall.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    11-2 (7-1 SEC)

     

    Returning Starters

    9

     

    What to Watch For

    Alabama must replace quarterback A.J. McCarron, who guided the Crimson Tide to a pair of national titles. The favorite to do so is Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, although he must hold off senior Blake Sims, who served as McCarron’s backup.

    The Tide must supplant three starters on the offensive line but have key pieces returning in junior wideout Amari Cooper, junior tailback T.J. Yeldon and sophomore tailback Derrick Henry.

    There are experience issues across the board defensively, where only three starters return, led by standout junior safety Landon Collins. However, if Coker and the other new starters jell, there’s no reason Alabama and Nick Saban won't challenge for a third national title in four seasons.

     

    What They’re Saying

    “We have to reestablish our identity as a team at Alabama. It's going to take every player to have a tremendous amount of buy‑in for us to be able to do that.

    "I think you basically need to check your ego at the door, all of us in our organizations: players, coaches, everybody in our organization. You know, really trust and believe in the things that have helped us be successful. Have enough humility to understand our role, what we need to do to help the team be successful, and certainly have the willingness as a family and a group to serve each other and help each other so that we have the best opportunity to accomplish this.” —Saban on a new team identity.

No. 3 Michigan State

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    Connor Cook and Michigan State had a breakout 2013 season.
    Connor Cook and Michigan State had a breakout 2013 season.Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    13-1 (8-0 Big Ten)

     

    Returning Starters

    12

     

    What to Watch For

    Michigan State enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2013, and many of the pieces who fueled that run are back, led by junior quarterback Connor Cook.

    State must replace three starting offensive linemen, but they have five players with starting experience returning. Senior Tony Lippett leads a talented receiver corps. Senior tailback Jeremy Langford had 1,422 rushing yards and 18 rushing scores a year ago.

    The Spartans must replace both starting defensive tackles, but highly touted freshman Malik McDowell figures to play a big role this fall early on. He’ll be helped by returning talented ends Shilique Calhoun and senior Marcus Rush. Calhoun is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. With six new starters on the defense, the offense will have to play a bigger role, at least early on.

     

    What They’re Saying

    "I think what we want to do is get back to where we were this past season, that will always be the
    goal to try and get better. I think when people say when you get to the top of the mountain, you find out there’s other mountains around to climb, and you’ve got to be able to do that. I think the big point here is we need to be able to handle success, we want to set this place up  for a long time. We want to leave a legacy here. We don’t want to be in and out.” —MSU coach Mark Dantonio discussing sustained success with Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News.

No. 2 Auburn

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    Gus Malzahn had one of the best debut seasons ever for a college football head coach.
    Gus Malzahn had one of the best debut seasons ever for a college football head coach.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    12-2 (7-1 SEC)

     

    Returning Starters

    13

     

    What To Watch For

    The Tigers stunned many with a run to the BCS National Championship Game in Gus Malzahn’s first year as head coach, but they’ll be marked this time around.

    Dynamic dual-threat quarterback Nick Marshall returns, and either Cameron Artis-Payne or Corey Grant could prove a capable replacement for Tre Mason at tailback. The offensive line returns four starters, and wideout Sammie Coates is an excellent deep threat.

    Defense was a not a strong point for the Tigers a year go, and they had end Dee Ford and cornerback Chris Davis. Senior Gabe Wright and up-and-coming sophomore Montravius Adams should bolster a solid defensive line.

    This is Ellis Johnson’s second season as defensive coordinator, and it’ll be interesting to see the progress made in his system.

     

    What They’re Saying

    “I think it's completely different. You know, last year we weren't on anybody's radar. We snuck up on a lot of people. This year we know we're going to be circled. We talked about that with our players. But at the same time I feel like that's good pressure. We've got our program back to where it should be, where people, you know, have us circled. But, hey, we got to play better and we have to play better early.” —Malzahn on being the hunted instead of the hunter.

No. 1 Florida State

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    Jameis Winston and Florida State should have plenty of talent to defend their 2013 national title.
    Jameis Winston and Florida State should have plenty of talent to defend their 2013 national title.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    2013 Record

    14-0 (8-0 ACC)

     

    Returning Starters

    15

     

    What to Watch For

    Last year, Florida State was believed to be a year ahead of schedule in winning its first national title since 2000. Now, next year is here, and despite some losses to the NFL draft (most notably junior wideout Kelvin Benjamin, a first-round pick) the Seminoles are just as tough as they were a year ago, led by returning Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston.

    Karlos Williams figures to carry a huge load in the backfield, and FSU returns four starters on the offensive line. Senior Rashad Greene will be Winston’s go-to in the receiving corps alongside senior tight end Nick O’Leary.

    Defensively, FSU replaces defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and All-America safety Lamarcus Joyner, but the team returns junior end Mario Edwards, junior linebacker Terrance Smith and sophomore safety Jalen Ramsey, among others. It is a deep, talented group, but the biggest question might be how they’ll respond to success.

     

    What They’re Saying

    “When good enough becomes good enough, you have a problem. If you don't ever keep that attitude of domination, that hunger to be great, somebody is going to pass you up. It's too competitive in our business, there's too many good players and too many good coaches out there to not stay on top, and I think that's always your goal. If you don't have that, you should get out of it.” —FSU coach Jimbo Fisher on his team’s motivation this fall.

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