14 Biggest College Football Questions Entering 2014 Season

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterAugust 6, 2014

14 Biggest College Football Questions Entering 2014 Season

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    It's early August, and college football begins in a little more than three weeks. That means there are all sorts of pressing questions about the upcoming season.

    And, unfortunately, there aren't many answers right now. 

    We'll get those as the season unfolds. Until then, it's a matter of scraping by with predictions and educated guesses. But that's all part of the fun.

    2014 should be another compelling college football season. Which 14 (for '14) pressing questions are we looking forward to answering? The answers are in the following slides. 

     

    Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. 

14. Will a Defensive Player Win the Heisman?

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    It's a long shot, but an intriguing possibility all the same.

    The last defensive player to win the Heisman was Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997. Since then, it's been all quarterbacks and running backs. For that matter, the Heisman has become something of a glorified Davey O'Brien Award for college football's best quarterback. 

    That's a byproduct of a stats-happy, offense-first point of view that has swept football. But there are plenty of outstanding defensive players who deserved to be recognized as among the best in the sport. Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer listed five players last month who could bring home college football's most prestigious award. 

    Former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney got some hype, but he was never invited to New York. Former Nebraska defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh could have won it in 2009.

    Could a defensive player finally break the trend this year? UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley are just a couple of names to think about. 

13. How Will New Realignment Teams Fare?

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Another year, another round of conference realignment moves were made official last month. Among the more high-profile moves were Rutgers and Maryland to the Big Ten and Louisville to the ACC. 

    All three were moved to difficult divisions. The Scarlet Knights and Terps share a division with Ohio State and Michigan State, and Louisville will play Clemson and Florida State every year. How will each new member fare long term?

    Former Big 12 members Missouri and Texas A&M have had their moments of success in the SEC. Similarly, Nebraska made it to the 2012 Big Ten title game. However, many other realignment moves haven't worked out so well for the newer members.

    TCU and West Virginia have struggled to win close games in the Big 12. Utah and Colorado haven't been able to do much damage in the Pac-12 either. 

    Every program needs time to adjust to a new conference, new opponents and new stadiums. Still, in a culture of knee-jerk narratives based on instant results, teams like Louisville and Maryland will be judged on what they do in their first year. 

12. Who Will the Next Up-and-Coming Coaches Be?

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    Associated Press

    Few college football reporters are more tuned in to what's happening (and what's next) than Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports. 

    So when he releases a list of 10 assistants who could be head coaches by this time next year, you take notice. Some, like Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris or Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, are annual inclusions by now. Others, such as Baylor offensive coordinator Phillip Montgomery, are starting to make a name for themselves. 

    Coaches like Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury rose up the coaching ranks quickly to land a head coaching job. Who's going to be the next Kingsbury or Bryan Harsin? 

    One name to keep an eye on could come from the Kevin Sumlin tree at Texas A&M: offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. 

11. Will There Be a 'Group of Five' Team in the Playoff?

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    Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    In other words, who will be 2014's Boise State?

    It's no secret that the four-team playoff caters almost exclusively to power conferences. Still, mathematically speaking, one or more of those power conferences will be left out of the playoff every year. So where does that leave programs in the American Athletic Conference or Mountain West?

    It's not promising; that's for sure. 

    Can Boise State, Central Florida, East Carolina or anyone else break through? An undefeated season is unofficially a prerequisite for consideration. 

    And, beginning in 2017, the ACC and SEC will be required to play at least one non-conference game per year against a fellow Power Five opponent. That's one less opportunity for a Central Florida or a Utah State to put a Power Five opponent on the resume.

    That doesn't mean those non-conference games will never happen; there's just less incentive to make them happen.

10. Is the Pac-12 Closing in on the SEC as College Football's Top Conference?

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    It's not an unfounded narrative: The SEC is college football's best conference. That's what happens when you produce seven straight national champions among four different programs. The question is which conference is second. 

    The Pac-12 is certainly making its case. From top to bottom, the league has an impressive group of coaches—from Stanford's David Shaw and Washington's Chris Petersen, to Arizona State's Todd Graham and UCLA's Jim Mora. 

    ESPN college football analyst David Pollack said as much in an interview with Knox Bardeen of Fox Sports South

    I think the Pac-12 has definitely closed the gap What's cool about the Pac-12 is the diversity. You look at the coaches: RichRod, (Washington State's) Coach (Mike) Leach, (they have) very innovative systems. Then you've got (Stanford coach) David Shaw, who's one of the best coaches in college football, smash-mouth, different personnel groupings and stuff like that. I think it's a very diverse coaching background, the talent's good in the Pac-12.

    The conference also has two preseason Top 10 teams, No. 4 Oregon and No. 7 UCLA, ranked in the preseason coaches poll. It's very possible the Ducks and Bruins meet in the conference championship game this December with a College Football Playoff bid on the line. 

    If either team—or anyone else from the Pac-12, for that matter—toppled an SEC team in the playoff, it would go a long way to showing top-tier Pac-12 teams could beat anyone in the country.  

9. Which Hot Seats Cool and Which Ones Heat Up?

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Ah, yes, the annual hot-seat question. Who's on it? Who will hop off it? And who will join the conversation by year's end?

    A few names that make the initial short list of hot-seat coaches include Michigan's Brady Hoke, Kansas' Charlie Weis, West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen, Virginia's Mike London and Florida's Will Muschamp.

    For what it's worth, some of these coaches might be safer than the narrative suggests. In an interview with Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said he was "not troubled" by the decline in wins during Hoke's three years in Ann Arbor. 

    Maybe that's nothing more than lip service, but Brandon has been persistent that he has confidence in Hoke. 

    That confidence could be tested by year's end if the Wolverines have another disappointing season. The same can be said for athletic directors like Oliver Luck (WVU) and Jeremy Foley (Florida) if their head coaches have another letdown. 

8. Will There Be Another NCAA Scandal That Emerges from Nowhere?

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports dropped a major story in August 2011, when he reported that former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro provided "thousands of impermissible benefits to at least 72 athletes" at Miami. 

    The NCAA had been looking into the allegations, but a botched and lengthy investigation resulted in nine scholarship deductions over three years and no bowl ban. (The university self-imposed two bowl bans.)

    Since then, the NCAA has been fairly quiet on the enforcement side. That led to Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby's famous "cheating pays" line during media days. Via ESPN.com's Jake Trotter

    Enforcement is broken. The infractions committee hasn't had [an FBS] hearing in almost a year, and I think it's not an understatement to say cheating pays presently. If you seek to conspire to certainly bend the rules, you can do it successfully and probably not get caught in most occasions.

    NCAA president Mark Emmert understandably disputed that comment, but there haven't been any major allegations recently. 

    Does that change in the next few months?

7. Who Will Be This Year's Auburn?

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    The story is well-known by now. In 2012, Auburn went 3-9 with no conference wins and fired head coach Gene Chizik. Then, under first-year coach (and former offensive coordinator) Gus Malzahn, the Tigers came roaring back in 2013 to win the SEC and earn a spot in the BCS national championship. 

    Auburn clearly had the players to make a turnaround; it just needed the right coach.

    Which team can replicate at least some of that success in 2014? Will it be Texas and first-year coach Charlie Strong? How about Florida? The Gators defense was 15th a year ago in points allowed, per cfbstats.com, but couldn't muster any offense. Will the addition of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper help?

    Some of the best stories each year are the ones that involve dramatic turnarounds. Which team will fit the story in 2014?

6. Will the Absence of a Conference Title Game Help or Hurt the Big 12?

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Truth is, no one knows for sure if a lack of a championship game will help or hurt the Big 12 in the playoff era.

    Take it from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who said during conference media days that some years a championship game could help a team's playoff resume, and some years it could hurt it. The risk of a possible playoff team playing an extra game, after all, is the 50/50 chance of losing, especially if it's to a far inferior opponent. 

    Of course, it's Bowlsby's job to tout the conference's mantra, "One True Champion," no matter how corny or inaccurate. (There could still be some tiebreakers needed in the standings.) 

    There are a couple of indisputable facts, though: a nine-game, round-robin conference schedule is harder to go through than an eight-game schedule that doesn't include every other conference opponent.

    Furthermore, the Big 12 is the only power conference without a conference championship game. And there are five power conferences vying for four playoff spots. 

    Does that leave the Big 12 at a disadvantage? It may depend on the individual team fighting for a playoff spot more than the conference if non-conference schedule is taken into consideration. 

    We'll find out for certain in four months. 

5. Can Texas A&M Keep the Momentum Going Post-Johnny Manziel?

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Texas A&M is officially settling in with head coach Kevin Sumlin. Last December, he inked a new six-year contract that puts him in the $5 million club. The university has also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into expanding Kyle Field and renovating facilities. Pictures of the Aggies' new locker room are mind-boggling. 

    Yet A&M has several questions heading into the season, primarily at quarterback and on defense. Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen are battling for the opportunity to succeed Johnny Manziel. Multiple departures on defense leave the Aggies without some of their biggest playmakers, like defensive lineman Gavin Stansbury. 

    All the while, Sumlin will be navigating his team through the SEC West, plus games against South Carolina and Missouri from the East division. 

    It's possible A&M could surprise like it did in 2012, and there's no doubt Sumlin has been recruiting lights out, but there are many factors that could lead to a so-so season in '14. 

    And with the money being invested into the program and coach, trending downward in the win column is not an option. 

4. What Will Charlie Strong's Texas Longhorns Look Like?

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    It is with deepest regrets to inform you that you too have been dismissed from Texas' football program. 

    In what can be described as some major house cleaning, Strong confirmed this month that five players had been dismissed from the program for various reasons. Three more players—running back/receiver Daje Johnson, offensive tackle Desmond Harrison and safety Josh Turner—have been suspended for at least the first game of the season. 

    Strong isn't messing around. Either buy into his core values or find another place to play.

    "With the core values, I say it all the time -- if a young man doesn't want to be part of this program, just go break a core value of this program," Strong said via Max Olson of ESPN.com. "You'll be telling me a lot about where you want to stand."

    Will the Longhorns look like a more disciplined team under Strong? And will that result in more wins?

    The first half of the season is brutal with back-to-back games against BYU and UCLA followed by Baylor and Oklahoma. Then, the Horns have to go on the road to Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. No one should wish that schedule on their worst enemy. 

    How does David Ash progress as a quarterback? How does the defense look? These are just some of the questions the Longhorns will have to answer early. 

3. Is the Tide Turning in the SEC West?

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    (See what we did there? We have original Internet jokes, y'all.) 

    Alabama's Nick Saban is the undisputed king of college football coaches—right? He's already won three national championships with the Tide and continues to crush it on the recruiting trail

    He's also never lost to Auburn twice in a row since coming to Tuscaloosa, a streak that's in jeopardy after last year's "Kick Six." Considering that Alabama or Auburn has represented the SEC West in the conference championship game in five of the last six years, it's safe to say the divisional title runs through the state of Alabama. 

    That means winning the Iron Bowl usually has high stakes. 

    If Gus Malzahn can best Saban two years in a row, expect to hear the emerging narrative that he's Saban's kryptonite. And, perhaps, in the conversation as the best coach in the SEC, if not the country. 

2. What Does 2014 Have in Store for Florida State QB Jameis Winston?

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    There will be no player in a brighter spotlight than Florida State quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. The redshirt sophomore had a breakout season a year ago, but he has dominated headlines over the past several months, usually for the wrong reasons. 

    There is, of course, the sexual battery allegation, for which he wasn't charged, that will follow him for years to come. Then there was "Crab-Gate" and USA Today's report that Winston was stopped and held at gunpoint by police in 2012 for carrying a pellet gun. 

    For Winston, Florida State and its fans, football season can't come soon enough. But how will he perform in his second year as a starter? Will he regress or progress as a player? Can he become the first player since Ohio State running back Archie Griffin (1974, '75) to win two Heismans? Will he declare for the NFL draft after this season?

    There are a lot of questions about Winston as a football player and no answers just yet. 

1. How Will the College Football Playoff Selection Committee Do?

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Put simply, there isn't a more compelling—and vague—question this year than how the first College Football Playoff field will be formed. 

    The 13-member selection committee will choose four teams, the process of which will undoubtedly be the most watched, and most scrutinized, storyline of the next several months. Yet the playoff is being tabbed as a more direct process for selecting a postseason field. 

    "It is very simple," said Bill Hancock, College Football Playoff's executive director, during Big 12 media days (h/t John Klein of the Tulsa World). "It is the four best teams."

    Right—but how does the committee define that? The resume? The eye test? Both? Fans and media like things spelled out for them. For all of the outcry about the BCS, it had formulas that took data on one end and spit out rankings on the other. 

    The formulas, of course, were subjective in their own way since they were designed by people. The selection committee is basically eliminating that step. Still, uncertainty is almost always cause for worry. This group will try to ease that anxiety. 

    How they do on that front remains to be seen.