College FootballDownload App

Grading Depth Charts for Every Top 25 College Football Team Entering 2014 Season

Greg WallaceFeatured ColumnistAugust 5, 2014

Grading Depth Charts for Every Top 25 College Football Team Entering 2014 Season

1 of 26

    Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher boasts one of the nation's deepest overall rosters.
    Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher boasts one of the nation's deepest overall rosters.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    All across America, college campuses are springing to life with the sounds of football. Under the sweltering August sun, 105 or so men on every Football Bowl Subdivision campus have begun practicing and preparing for what lies ahead in the final weekend of this month: the 2014 regular season.

    Coaches across America claim that “every job is open,” which is only partially true. No one is dethroning Jameis Winston at Florida State or Brett Hundley at UCLA or Landon Collins at Alabama.

    Here’s the truth: There are competitions across the nation, some of them more intense than others. Every team has strengths and weaknesses. Areas they know they need to shore up and areas they’ll lean on this fall.

    In this feature, we’ll take a look at each Top 25 college football team’s depth chart entering the 2014 season, and grade it accordingly. We used the Amway Coaches Poll as our basis. 

No. 25 Washington

2 of 26

    Chris Petersen has plenty of talent in his first season at Washington.
    Chris Petersen has plenty of talent in his first season at Washington.Uncredited/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Steve Sarkisian bolted to USC, but new coach Chris Petersen inherited 14 starters from a team that won nine games in 2013. The Huskies are strong on the offensive line, where they return all five starters, and on the defensive line, where they return all four starters from 2013. Kasen Williams and Jaydon Mickens provide experience in the wide receiver corps, and the linebacker group is also experienced.

     

    Weaknesses

    New quarterback Cyler Miles was suspended for the opener following assault charges and is unproven regardless. Without Miles, Jeff Lindquist or redshirt freshman Troy Williams will start in the opener at Hawaii. Neither has thrown a pass collegiately. Dwayne Washington, a speedy breakaway back, must prove he can be an every-down back to replace the departed Bishop Sankey. Deontae Cooper and Lavon Coleman are also in the mix.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Junior corner Marcus Peters is the only returning starter in the secondary. The Huskies will rely on untested young players around him, making the battles at corner and safety crucial this month. A key player is incoming freshman safety Budda Baker, who leads a group of seven freshman defensive backs who hope for playing time this fall.

     

    Grade: B

No. 24 Texas

3 of 26

    Charlie Strong has emphasized discipline in his first season at Texas.
    Charlie Strong has emphasized discipline in his first season at Texas.Uncredited/Associated Press

    Strengths

    New coach Charlie Strong has emphasized a culture of discipline since taking over an 8-5 team, and he also inherits 12 starters from former coach Mack Brown’s regime. Seven starters return on defense, led by junior tackle Malcom Brown and senior Cedric Reed (who had 10 sacks in 2013). The secondary has talent and speed, keyed by senior cornerback Quandre Diggs. With seniors Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray returning, tailback is a strength.

     

    Weaknesses

    Texas must replace three starters from 2013’s offensive line, and quarterback David Ash must prove he can stay healthy for an entire season after missing the final nine games last fall with concussion symptoms. The Longhorns need more from linebackers Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Talented pass-rusher Jackson Jeffcoat is gone, and sophomore Caleb Bluiett and junior Shiro Davis are engaging in a spirited battle to replace him. If one can emerge as a pass-rushing threat, it’ll help the defense immensely.

     

    Grade: B-

No. 23 North Carolina

4 of 26

    Marquise Williams is battling for North Carolina's starting quarterback job.
    Marquise Williams is battling for North Carolina's starting quarterback job.Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Strengths

    North Carolina was one of the nation’s most improved teams down the stretch last year, winning six of its final seven games to salvage a 7-6 record. Coach Larry Fedora welcomes back 16 starters from a year ago as the Tar Heels hope to build on the strong finish. Wide receivers Quinshad Davis, Kendrick Singleton and T.J. Thorpe will give opposing defenses headaches.

    UNC also returns three starting offensive linemen. On defense, seven starters return from a unit that improved as the year went on, led by senior bandit Norkeithus Otis (7.5 sacks a year ago). At tailback, sophomore T.J. Logan and talented freshman Elijah Hood should create an impressive backfield duo.

     

    Weaknesses

    At left tackle, freshman Bentley Spain or sophomore John Ferranto must emerge to protect the quarterback’s blind side. Two starters return at linebacker, but coaches are looking for more from senior Travis Hughes. North Carolina also needs to improve in run defense; a year ago, the Tar Heels allowed 182.5 yards rushing per game, worst in the ACC. Kareem Martin and Darius Lipford, who combined for 14 sacks a year ago, are gone. However, Otis and fellow seniors Devonte Brown and Shawn Farmer bring needed experience.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Junior Marquise Williams emerged as the starting quarterback last fall, but he is being pushed by freshman Mitch Trubisky. Williams figured to be the favorite, but he hasn’t locked down the job by any means yet.

     

    Grade: B

No. 22 Nebraska

5 of 26

    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

    Strengths

    Nebraska put together yet another nine-win season last year, but returns only nine starters from 2013. One of the biggest strengths is the running game, where senior tailback Ameer Abdullah (1,690 rushing yards in 2013) returns, backed up by junior Imani Cross. Senior Kenny Bell is one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic receivers and a very solid mentor. On defense, junior end Randy Gregory is the only returning starter on the defensive line, but he led the league with 10.5 sacks a year ago.

     

    Weaknesses

    The Cornhuskers return only one starting offensive lineman, senior left guard Jake Cotton, and only three defensive starters. However, this is a talented group which will have plenty of people pushing each other for playing time. Still, a lack of returning starters is a concern.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    At linebacker, junior David Santos was No. 2 on the defense in tackles last fall, but he’ll be pushed for playing time by freshman Marcus Newby. If the Huskers’ youth can break through for more playing time this fall, they could lead a charge past the nine-win barrier.

     

    Grade B-

No. 21 Kansas State

6 of 26

    Bill Snyder should have a solid Big 12 contender in Kansas State this fall.
    Bill Snyder should have a solid Big 12 contender in Kansas State this fall.Uncredited/Associated Press

    Strengths

    K-State returns 12 starters from an 8-5 team that got better as the season went on, capped off with a Buffalo Wild Wings bowl over Michigan. The Wildcats return only two offensive line starters to protect senior quarterback Jake Waters, but it is a deep group of upperclassmen that should fill in the holes nicely.

    Seniors Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton are solid targets for Waters in the Wildcats’ wide receiver corps. Senior Ryan Mueller (11.5 sacks a year ago) will anchor K-State’s defensive line, and junior defensive tackle Travis Britz will complement him well.

     

    Weaknesses

    Only one starter returns at linebacker in senior Jonathan Truman. The ‘Cats will lean on junior college transfer D’Vonta Derricott at linebacker and junior Terrell Clinkscales at defensive tackle, but both must pick up the defense this month. Tailback is also a concern, with senior DeMarcus Robinson leading the way. Robinson has 11 career carries, but he is the only Wildcat on the roster who has carried the ball collegiately, meaning inexperience will be a factor regardless.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Robinson will have the first shot at tailback, but he’ll be pushed by sophomores Jarvis Leverett and Charles Jones and freshman Dalvin Warmack. It’ll be an interesting battle to track this fall.

     

    Grade C+

No. 20 Texas A&M

7 of 26

    Sophomore Kenny Hill is battling for Texas A&M's starting quarterback job.
    Sophomore Kenny Hill is battling for Texas A&M's starting quarterback job.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Strengths

    Texas A&M returns 12 starters from last season’s nine-win team, a number reduced when three projected defensive starters were dismissed for offseason arrests and team rule violations. A&M seeks a successor to Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, but whoever starts will play behind an offensive line that returns four starters, led by future NFL first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi, a senior left tackle.

    Even with the dismissals of Isaiah Golden and Gavin Stansbury, A&M still has a solid depth chart and returns six defensive linemen with experience. And senior Malcome Kennedy leads a talented wide receiver corps that also includes impact freshmen in Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil.

     

    Weaknesses

    The Aggies’ defense was a weak spot a year ago, and the dismissals might make progress difficult. Both freshman Kyle Allen and sophomore Kenny Hill are well thought-of, but Kevin Sumlin and Co. must identify a starter quickly at quarterback to fill the void Manziel leaves behind.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    The battle between Allen and Hill wasn’t resolved in the spring and figures to go to the opener at South Carolina and perhaps beyond. Both are capable of moving the ball on the ground or through the air, but the sooner the Aggies settle on one quarterback, the better.

     

    Grade: B-

No. 19 Ole Miss

8 of 26

    Bo Wallace is one of the SEC's most experienced quarterbacks.
    Bo Wallace is one of the SEC's most experienced quarterbacks.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Ole Miss returns 14 starters from an 8-5 team that punctuated the season with a Music City Bowl win over Georgia Tech. The Rebels have recruited well recently, which shows in their depth. Senior Bo Wallace is the SEC’s most experienced quarterback and a steady hand. Ole Miss returns nine starters on defense, including the entire secondary, led by All-America safety Cody Prewitt. A deep defensive line is headlined by sophomore defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, one of the nation’s top freshman talents a year ago.

     

    Weaknesses The Rebels return only two starting offensive linemen, although sophomore left tackle Laremy Tunsil is a special talent. They also need to settle on a starting center, be it junior Justin Bell or junior Ben Still. Sophomore wideout Laquon Treadwell must take another step forward in his second season as a starter.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    At tailback, Jaylen Walton will battle fellow junior I’Tavius Mathers for carries in the Rebels backfield. The two combined for nearly 1,100 yards a year ago, but the offense would improve if one or the other emerged as a feature back.

     

    Grade: B-

No. 18 Arizona State

9 of 26

    Arizona State's D.J. Foster is one of the nation's top big-play tailbacks.
    Arizona State's D.J. Foster is one of the nation's top big-play tailbacks.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Arizona State won 10 games a year ago, but returns only 10 starters from that team. However, those who return are talented. Senior quarterback Taylor Kelly is one of the nation’s most prolific dual-threat quarterbacks (4,243 yards of total offense a year ago), and junior tailback D.J. Foster is a dynamic multi-purpose threat. The Sun Devils return three starting offensive linemen, and Auburn transfer Christian Westerman figures to be a solid addition at left guard.

     

    Weaknesses

    ASU returns only two starters on defense (sophomore linebacker Salamo Fiso and senior free safety Damarious Randall). There isn’t much depth or experience along the defensive line or at linebacker. On the line, the Sun Devils will rely on a number of junior college transfers who’ll be tested early on. At wide receiver, junior Jaelen Strong is a proven threat, but there’s little behind him.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    At wide receiver, a capable threat from the likes of junior college transfer Eric Lauderdale, sophomore Frederick Gammage and freshmen Ellis Jefferson and Ronald Lewis must emerge to help Strong.

     

    Grade C

No. 17 Notre Dame

10 of 26

    Everett Golson will be back under center for Notre Dame this fall.
    Everett Golson will be back under center for Notre Dame this fall.Joe Raymond/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Notre Dame returns 11 starters from a 9-4 team, and that doesn’t include junior quarterback Everett Golson, back on campus after missing last season due to an academic violation. Junior DaVaris Daniels leads a deep, talented receiving corps, and the Fighting Irish also return three starting offensive linemen, but that doesn’t include NFL first-round pick Zack Martin. Secondary is a major strength. with a pair of returning starters bolstered by Florida transfer Cody Riggs, who should fit in well at cornerback. Tailback is also a source of strength, led by sophomore Tarean Folston.

     

    Weaknesses

    Junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day and sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith are the only returnees in the Fighting Irish’s defensive front seven under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. The line must replace NFL departures in Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt. Senior Ben Koyack must prove he is the next great Irish tight end following the early departure of Troy Niklas.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Riggs will push returning starter Matthias Farley hard for a starting spot. It should be one of the most spirited battles on the roster. Riggs played in 40 games at Florida, starting 26 between cornerback and safety. He has 107 tackles, 9.5 for loss and an interception in his career and solidifies an already experienced group, but Farley won't give up his starting role easily.

     

    Grade B-

No. 16 Clemson

11 of 26

    Cole Stoudt has big shoes to fill as Clemson's quarterback this fall.
    Cole Stoudt has big shoes to fill as Clemson's quarterback this fall.RAINIER EHRHARDT/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Clemson is coming off an 11-2 season and an Orange Bowl win, and the Tigers are determined to reload, not rebuild. Clemson’s defensive line, led by senior end Vic Beasley, should be one of the nation’s best. The entire 2013 two-deep returns, and sophomore Shaq Lawson would be a starter on many teams nationally.

    Clemson also returns three starters on the offensive line, and even though Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant are gone to the NFL, coaches are confident in upperclassmen Adam Humphries and Charone Peake and a talented group of freshmen, as well as sophomore Mike Williams. New senior starting quarterback Cole Stoudt will be pushed by talented freshman DeShaun Watson.

     

    Weaknesses

    The Tigers are looking for a replacement for 1,000-yard rusher Rod McDowell, but might have a backfield by committee with the likes of senior D.J. Howard, junior Zac Brooks and freshman Wayne Gallman. They also return only one secondary starter in senior Robert Smith, although big things are expected of redshirt freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander and sophomore safety Jayron Kearse. Junior Isaiah Battle must fill big shoes in replacing two-time first-team All-ACC left tackle Brandon Thomas.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Although Humphries and Peake have experience, they’ll be pushed by a group of freshmen that includes Artavis Scott, Demarre Kitt and Kyrin Priester. Expect the freshmen to see some significant time early on this fall as the revamped offense finds its way.

     

    Grade: B

No. 15 USC

12 of 26

    USC quarterback Cody Kessler will have plenty of talent around him this fall.
    USC quarterback Cody Kessler will have plenty of talent around him this fall.Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Despite a tumultuous 2013, USC went 10-4 and new coach Steve Sarkisian inherits plenty of talent, although depth is a concern due to lingering scholarship restrictions stemming from NCAA probation. The Trojans return three starters on the offensive line. While talented wideouts Robert Woods and Marqise Lee are gone, do-everything junior Nelson Agholor should emerge as one of the nation’s most exciting players with junior Cody Kessler throwing to him. Eight starters return on defense, including three starting secondary members and two starting linebackers. The defensive line is deep and talented, led by junior end Leonard Williams.

     

    Weaknesses

    Although three starters return, depth is a concern on the O-line. Javorius Allen must prove he can carry a bigger load at tailback after piling up 1,027 all-purpose yards last fall (785 rushing). Tre Madden returns after rushing for 703 yards in 2013. Someone must emerge alongside Agholor from the group of Victor Blackwell, George Farmer and Darreus Rogers at wide receiver. Rogers is the best bet after making 22 receptions a year ago.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    One of the most interesting battles will be at defensive end, where Texas Tech transfer Delvon Simmons or junior college transfer Claude Pelon will start alongside Williams. The Trojans are talented but depth is a concern across the board, as 2015 will be the first full recruiting class USC has been allowed in the last four years.

     

    Grade B-

No. 14 Wisconsin

13 of 26

    Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave faces a major challenge for his starting job this fall.
    Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave faces a major challenge for his starting job this fall.John Raoux/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Coming off a 9-4 season, Wisconsin and coach Gary Andersen return only 10 starters. One of the biggest strengths is the offensive line, where four starters return. Only three starters return on defense, but they’re all in the secondary, led by cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary. At tailback, junior Melvin Gordon turned down the NFL draft for another college season, and sophomore Corey Clement averaged 8.2 yards per carry as a freshman.

     

    Weaknesses

    The Badgers must replace the entire front seven on defense, and the projected starting defensive line includes a pair of freshmen in ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. There are also concerns at wide receiver after the Badgers lost their top three pass-catchers from a year ago.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Without question, it’s quarterback. Junior Joel Stave is 13-6 as a starter but missed much of spring practice with a shoulder injury. He’s being pushed hard by junior Tanner McEvoy, a dual-threat option who played as a wideout and defensive back last year. With LSU looming in the opener, Andersen needs to get this decision correct right off the bat.

     

    Grade: B-

No. 13 LSU

14 of 26

    Anthony Jennings is facing a major challenge for LSU's starting quarterback job.
    Anthony Jennings is facing a major challenge for LSU's starting quarterback job.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Strengths

    LSU returns 14 starters from a 10-win team but must replace serious firepower on offense. The Tigers will build around a strong offensive line that returns four starters from a year ago, as well as a strong defensive line led by ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco. It is deep and talented, especially if defensive tackle is solidified. At linebacker, junior Kwon Alexander and senior D.J. Welter are experienced returnees. At receiver, sophomore Travin Dural will be joined by signees Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, among others, and freshman tailback Leonard Fournette is one of the nation’s most hyped recruits.

     

    Weaknesses

    Safety is a major concern with no returning starters and no standout options. The wide receivers are talented but very young across the board following the departures of Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry to the NFL. And a starter must emerge at quarterback to replace Zach Mettenberger.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Quarterback will be the most scrutinized position in Baton Rouge, with early-enrollee freshman Brandon Harris pushing sophomore Anthony Jennings, who was inconsistent following Mettenberger’s late-season torn ACL.

     

    Grade: B

No. 12 Georgia

15 of 26

    Georgia's Todd Gurley is part of one of the nation's best backfields.
    Georgia's Todd Gurley is part of one of the nation's best backfields.Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Georgia returns 16 starters from a team that was wracked by injuries last fall in a disappointing 8-5 season. That includes nine starters from a defense seeking a new start under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Despite losing multiple secondary members to offseason disciplinary issues, UGA still has two returning starters in senior Damian Swann and sophomore Quincy Mauger.

    First-team All-SEC senior linebacker Ramik Wilson leads a solid group of returnees that also includes senior Amarlo Herrera and junior Jordan Jenkins. Juniors Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall comprise one of the nation’s top backfields. Even with junior Malcolm Mitchell’s knee injury, the wide receiver corps is deep and talented.

     

    Weaknesses

    Georgia returns only two starting offensive linemen from a year ago to protect new senior starting quarterback Hutson Mason, who gets his chance after biding his time behind Aaron Murray. But if he gets dinged, sophomore Faton Bauta is next man in, and that’s not good. He has played in only three games in his UGA career. Experience is also an issue in the secondary, where freshman Malkom Parrish and junior college transfer Shattle Fenteng will play significant roles this fall.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Despite Mitchell’s injury, competition will be strong at wide receiver with seniors Chris Conley and Michael Bennett as well as Mitchell (when he gets healthy) and sophomore Reggie Davis and Justin Scott-Wesley battling for snaps.

     

    Grade: B+

No. 11 Stanford

16 of 26

    David Shaw and Stanford have become a consistent national force.
    David Shaw and Stanford have become a consistent national force.Uncredited/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Stanford returns 13 starters from a team that won 11 games and a Pac-12 championship, and doesn’t figure to take much a step backward this fall. The secondary is a big strength, with three returning starters (and senior Kyle Olugbode the favorite to win a role at strong safety). The Cardinal’s defensive line is young but has plenty of depth with senior starters Henry Anderson and David Parry. Senior Ty Montgomery and junior Devon Cajuste lead a talented receiving corps.

     

    Weaknesses

    Junior left tackle Andrus Peat is the only returning starter on the offensive line, although his new linemates are all very highly regarded. The Cardinal’s tight ends, led by junior Charlie Hopkins, lack significant experience but have strong pedigrees. Stanford needs a starter to emerge from what could be a backfield by committee. 

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Tailback will be watched closely this fall, with Reymound Wright, Ricky Seale, Kelsey Young and Barry Sanders (the son of NFL Hall of Fame tailback Barry Sanders) will all be competing. A backfield by committee wouldn’t be the worst thing, but David Shaw would likely prefer a workhorse to break away from the pack.

     

    Grade: B

No. 10 Baylor

17 of 26

    Bryce Petty of Baylor is a strong Heisman Trophy candidate.
    Bryce Petty of Baylor is a strong Heisman Trophy candidate.Matt York/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Baylor finished 2013 11-2 with their first outright league title in 33 years, but the Bears return only nine starters from a year ago on their depth chart. Wideouts Antwan Goodley and Corey Coleman give Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Petty some solid weapons to throw to. The Bears return only two starting defensive linemen but have a deep, talented front regardless. Sophomore tailback Shock Linwood leads a deep, capable backfield.

     

    Weaknesses

    Baylor returns only one starting offensive lineman in junior left tackle Spencer Drango, who is coming off winter back surgery. Junior Terrell Burt is the only returning starter in the secondary and senior linebacker Bryce Hager is the only returning starting linebacker. Junior college transfers could help. Cornerback Chris Sanders will make an impact, as will linebacker Grant Campbell. The Bears defense must continue its progress after allowing 360 yards per game a year ago (down from over 500 in 2012).

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Baylor returns five defensive tackles with experience from a year ago, led by junior Beau Blackshear and sophomore Byron Bonds. Both are capable of starting and will surely lead the way in a spirited battle for playing time this fall.

     

    Grade: B

No. 9 South Carolina

18 of 26

    Mike Davis should be one of the SEC's top tailbacks.
    Mike Davis should be one of the SEC's top tailbacks.RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press

    Strengths

    South Carolina returns 15 starters from a team that won 11 games for the third consecutive season. While USC must replace quarterback and senior leader Connor Shaw, senior Dylan Thompson has plenty of experience as his backup. There is depth and talent on a bruising offensive line that returns three starters and will clear the way for speedy junior tailback Mike Davis and backup Brandon Wilds.

    Sophomore Skai Moore and junior Kaiwan Lewis are proven quantities at linebacker. A wide receiver corps that features junior Shaq Roland, senior Damiere Byrd and sophomore Pharoh Cooper will give Thompson plenty of targets.

     

    Weaknesses

    Without end Jadeveon Clowney, the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick, the Gamecocks defensive line has some holes to fill. Senior J.T. Surratt is the only returning starter. Cornerback is a major question mark behind senior Brison Williams, who actually begins the season listed at strong safety, per the depth chart.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Sophomores Rico McWilliams and Jamari Smith and freshman Ali Groves need to prove themselves worthy of a starting role beside Williamsand improve quickly to keep opponents from throwing away from Williams’ side and targeting them consistently.

     

    Grade: B

No. 8 Michigan State

19 of 26

    Quarterback Connor Cook is a key for a deep, talented Michigan State team.
    Quarterback Connor Cook is a key for a deep, talented Michigan State team.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Michigan State returns 12 starters on its depth chart from a team that went 13-1 with a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory. The Spartans have a deep defensive line that features two returning starters led by junior end Shilique Calhoun, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, and senior end Marcus Rush, a four-year starter.

    Juniors Joel Heath and Damon Knox are solid at defensive tackle, and freshman Malik McDowell will also push for playing time. At tailback, senior Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 1,422 yards and 18 scores a year ago, leads a solid backfield with fellow senior Nick Hill as a backup.

     

    Weaknesses

    The Spartans return only two offensive line starters, and senior Taiwan Jones is the only returning starter at linebacker (although that group does have experience). Junior Connor Cook is a great leader at quarterback, but his backup is freshman Damion Terry.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    At receiver, senior Tony Lippett is the only returning starter. The likes of senior Keith Mumphrey, juniors DeAnthony Arnett and Macgarrett Kings and sophomore R.J. Shelton will battle to gain starting snaps,  and someone needs to step forward beside Lippett to provide Cook a capable target.

     

    Grade: B

No. 7 UCLA

20 of 26

    UCLA junior Brett Hundley has led the Bruins' charge back into the national spotlight.
    UCLA junior Brett Hundley has led the Bruins' charge back into the national spotlight.Victor Calzada/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Fourteen starters are back from a UCLA team that enjoyed a breakthrough season and 10-3 record. That includes a strong secondary led by junior cornerback Fabian Moreau and junior Randall Goforth. Seven defensive starters return, in fact. The linebackers are led by senior Eric Kendricks and sophomore Myles Jack, who was the Pac-12’s defensive and offensive freshman of the year last fall. Three offensive line starters return and juniors Devin Fuller, Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien lead a talented receiving corps.

     

    Weaknesses

    Junior quarterback Brett Hundley is a Heisman Trophy candidate, but behind him is unproven freshman Asiantii Woulard. Senior Jordon James and sophomore Paul Perkins are a backfield by committee, although it’d be nice to see one of them emerge as a true starter to complement Hundley’s running ability.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    James and Perkins are a solid duo, but UCLA would be better off if one emerged as a bell cow in the backfield. This month and the first month of the season will tell plenty about whether that will happen or not.

     

    Grade: B+

No. 6 Ohio State

21 of 26

    Quarterback Braxton Miller is one of the nation's most dynamic quarterbacks.
    Quarterback Braxton Miller is one of the nation's most dynamic quarterbacks.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Ohio State returns 12 starters from a team that was in line for a BCS National Championship appearance before a Big Ten title game loss to Michigan State. The Buckeyes defensive line is deep and talented, led by sophomore Joey Bosa, junior Noah Spence and senior Michael Bennett. OSU loses NFL first-round pick Ryan Shazier but returns a pair of linebacker starters in upperclassmen Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry and welcomes highly touted freshman Raekwon McMillan.

     

    Weaknesses

    Do-everything senior Braxton Miller is one of the nation’s most dynamic quarterbacks, but sophomore backup Cardale Jones is unproven. Only one starting offensive lineman returns (junior left tackle Taylor Decker). There is no clear replacement at tailback for physical back Carlos Hyde, and senior cornerback Doran Grant is the only returning starter in the secondary.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott (a physical runner) and senior Rod Smith will battle it out to replace Hyde as the Buckeyes’ feature back. Hyde was a bruising presence, and Ohio State’s offense needs someone to approximate his role, at the very least.

     

    Grade: B

No. 5 Auburn

22 of 26

    Tailback Cameron Artis-Payne should play a big role in Auburn's offense this fall.
    Tailback Cameron Artis-Payne should play a big role in Auburn's offense this fall.David Goldman/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Twelve starters return from a 12-2 team that made a stunning run to the BCS National Championship and pushed Florida State to the wire before falling 35-31. That includes three starting offensive linemen, although that depth has been tested by this week’s news that sophomore guard Alex Kozan will miss the season following a back injury. Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason is gone, but seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant mean the Tigers won’t miss a beat in the backfield. Juniors Sammie Coates and Quan Bray lead a deep receiving corps, and a defensive line keyed by seniors Gabe Wright and LaDarius Owens will wreak havoc on opposing offenses

     

    Weaknesses

    Sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson’s torn ACL will sideline him for much of this season, meaning junior DaVonte Lambert must step into a bigger role. Only two starters return in the secondary, with junior Joshua Holsey and senior Trovon Reed battling to replace departed corner Chris Davis.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Artis-Payne and Grant have an interesting battle in the backfield, and NFL first-round pick Greg Robinson leaves a void at left tackle. He’ll be replaced by either junior Patrick Miller or sophomore Shon Coleman, an inspirational story who has battled his way back from a leukemia diagnosis in 2010.

     

    Grade: A-

No. 4 Oregon

23 of 26

    Junior Marcus Mariota is one of college football's most dynamic talents.
    Junior Marcus Mariota is one of college football's most dynamic talents.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Strengths

    The Ducks return 15 starters from a team that won 11 games a year ago, led by all five starting offensive linemen. Two projected backups are juniors, while three are freshmen. At tailback, junior Byron Marshall is a returning 1,000-yard rusher and the Pac-12’s returning leading rusher, and Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman are also very talented. All three starting linebackers return, and backups like juniors Rahim Cassell and Joe Walker are also experienced.

     

    Weaknesses

    Junior quarterback Marcus Mariota is one of the nation’s most dynamic players, but if he gets dinged, there is no experienced replacement ready to step in. Senior Keanon Lowe is a solid returnee, but the Ducks are looking to replace their top four pass-catchers from a year ago.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Aside from senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olumu, the secondary has three starting spots to fill this fall.  Senior cornerback Dior Mathis and senior safety Erick Dargan are poised to win starting roles, but they’ll be pushed by senior Troy Hill and junior Alex Dixon, respectively.

     

    Grade: B+

     

No. 3 Oklahoma

24 of 26

    Quarterback Trevor Knight is part of a deep, talented Oklahoma roster.
    Quarterback Trevor Knight is part of a deep, talented Oklahoma roster.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Oklahoma returns 14 starters from an 11-2 team that enjoyed a breakthrough 2013 capped by a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. One of the biggest strengths is linebacker, where all three starters return, led by sophomore Dominique Alexander, the Big 12’s Defensive Freshman of the Year (80 tackles in 2013) and junior Eric Striker. The defensive line is very deep as well: Returning starters like sophomore defensive tackle Jordan Wade and senior defensive end Chuka Ndule are not guaranteed starting roles this fall. Even with talented freshman Joe Mixon’s suspension following an assault investigation, sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross are ready to step forward in the backfield. Three offensive line starters return.

     

    Weaknesses

    Junior wide receiver Sterling Shepard is a proven threat for sophomore Trevor Knight, but inexperience abounds behind him. A huge X-factor is troubled Missouri transfer Dorial Green-Beckham, one of the nation's top receivers. Oklahoma has filed a waiver for immediate eligibility and is "very confident" it will succeed, according to The Oklahoman. If that happens, Knight and the passing game will recieve a huge boost. Junior center Ty Darlington must prove he can step into departed All-America Gabe Ikard’s shoes as well.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Who will step forward from a group that includes junior Durron Neal, sophomore Derrick Woods and freshmen Dannon Cavil, Jordan Smallwood and K.J. Young to run alongside Shepard as a starter?

     

    Grade: B+

No. 2 Alabama

25 of 26

    Amari Cooper leads a deep, talented Alabama receiving corps.
    Amari Cooper leads a deep, talented Alabama receiving corps.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Strengths

    Alabama returns only nine starters from a team that began the season 11-0 but finished it on an uncharacteristic two-game losing streak. AL.com's Andrew Gribble says Nick Saban is trying to "resurrect the identity" of the program.

    However, the Crimson Tide have recruited well and are in position for another strong season. At wide receiver, junior Amari Cooper and seniors Christion Jones and DeAndrew White give solid options for whoever emerges as the starting quarterback, and junior tailback T.J. Yeldon, sophomore Derrick Henry and junior Kenyan Drake are a dynamic backfield duo. Senior end Brandon Ivory is the only returning starter on the defensive line, but there are a multitude of options led by sophomore A’Shawn Robinson and fellow sophomores Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson. 

     

    Weaknesses

    The offensive line, long an Alabama strength, has question marks while returning only two starters from a year ago. Freshman Cam Robinson and sophomore Brandon Greene will battle it out at left tackle. And while junior Landon Colllins is a standout at safety, the secondary is filled with question marks. However, potential starters like cornerbacks Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones and safety Geno Smith are all juniors.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Senior Blake Sims finished spring as the leader of a five-man quarterback derby, but now must contend with transfer junior Jacob Coker, who served as Jameis Winston’s backup last fall before transferring from Florida State. The winner inherits a talented offense but also must fill a leadership void left by AJ McCarron’s graduation.

     

    Grade: B+

No. 1 Florida State

26 of 26

    Senior Rashad Greene is one of Florida State's only truly proven wide receivers.
    Senior Rashad Greene is one of Florida State's only truly proven wide receivers.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Strengths

    As the defending BCS national champ, Florida State has plenty of strength across its lineup. The Seminoles return the defending Heisman Trophy winner in sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston, four starting offensive linemen (and projected starter Austin Barron was a part-time starter a year ago) and six starters from a defense that yielded 12.1 points per game last fall, best nationally. Three starters return in the secondary and junior end Mario Edwards should be one of the nation’s top pass-rushers this fall. And even though the top two rushers from 2013 are gone, senior Karlos Williams had 730 yards as the third-team back last fall. 

     

    Weaknesses

    Florida State returns senior Rashad Greene (the team’s leader in receiving yardage three years running) but must find a replacement for Kelvin Benjamin, who caught the game-winning touchdown in the BCS National Championship and was a first-round pick of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Jarred Haggins and Christian Green are seniors but have never carried the load of a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver. Junior punter Cason Beatty was shaky last fall, averaging 41.1 yards per attempt. It is FSU’s only true weak spot.

     

    Position Battle to Watch

    Alongside Greene, Haggins and Green are the favorites at receiver, but they’ll be pushed by a deep group that includes speedy sophomore Kermit Whitfield, freshman Bobo Wilson and highly touted incoming recruits Ermon Lane, Travis Rudolph and Javon Harrison. It’ll be fascinating to see who emerges as Winston’s most trusted targets.

     

    Grade: A- 

Where can I comment?

Stay on your game

Latest news, insights, and forecasts on your teams across leagues.

Choose Teams
Get it on the App StoreGet it on Google Play

Real-time news for your teams right on your mobile device.

Download
Copyright © 2017 Bleacher Report, Inc. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved. BleacherReport.com is part of Bleacher Report – Turner Sports Network, part of the Turner Sports and Entertainment Network. Certain photos copyright © 2017 Getty Images. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of Getty Images is strictly prohibited. AdChoices