Predicting the Achilles Heel of Every Projected Top 25 Team for 2014

Alex SimsCorrespondent IIIMarch 10, 2014

Predicting the Achilles Heel of Every Projected Top 25 Team for 2014

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    With college football's spring practice season kicking off, the slate is clean for every team from the defending champion Florida State Seminoles to Purdue, which finished 1-11 in 2013.

    While some squads have clear weaknesses, even teams like Florida State, Auburn and Oregon look vulnerable going into 2014.

    We'll take a look at the potential weak spots for each projected Top 25 team as they work through spring practice toward their spring game exhibitions.

    As August draws near, keep an eye on how each team addresses these issues in the offseason. 

    Note: Rankings via Bleacher Report's Very Early Top 25 for 2014 College Football Season by Adam Kramer. All stats via or various athletic department websites.

25. BYU Cougars

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 8-5

    2014 Achilles Heel: One-sided offense

    BYU's rushing offense was one of the best in the nation last year, which led it to an 8-5 finish.

    However, when stronger opposing defenses were able to key in on and stop the run, the Cougars had no answer in their passing game.

    In wins, BYU averaged 314.5 rushing yards. But in losses, it tallied just 192 yards per game on the ground. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall admitted this weakness at the beginning of spring practice, per Jay Drew, The Salt Lake Tribune:

    If we are looking at our program, and what we have to improve, [it would be] our ability to throw and protect [the quarterback] and catch the football effectively. So our pass game has to catch up to the run game, which I think it will.

    The Cougars have a chance to do big things next year, but when their rushing attack is stymied, Taysom Hill will have to be there to make the opposition pay through the air.

24. Duke Blue Devils

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 10-4

    2014 Achilles Heel: Inconsistent defense

    Duke had the No. 4 offense in the ACC last year which propelled it to the Coastal Division title.

    The Blue Devils will return most of their offense, including quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette and star playmaker Jamison Crowder.

    While that side of the ball looks to be in good shape, the defense will need to make strides for David Cutcliffe's squad to defend its divisional crown. The defense was strong at times but was ripped for more than 300 yards either rushing or passing in its four losses.

    The Blue Devils allowed 48.3 points per game in those four defeats while allowing just 18 per their 10 wins.

    That can't happen in 2014. While making sure that doesn't happen, they'll have to replace top pass rusher Kenny Anunike.

23. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 7-6

    2014 Achilles Heel: Rush defense

    North Carolina made some incredible strides through the 2013 season which has it with a promising outlook for 2014.

    Following a 1-5 start, the Tar Heels went on a tear to finish 7-6 with a Belk Bowl triumph over Cincinnati.

    One of UNC's early weaknesses was defending the run. It allowed more than 225 rushing yards in four of its first five defeats but yielded that just once the rest of the year—in an 80-20 win over Old Dominion.

    If it can keep the rush defense tight, it'll have a shot at the Coastal title. However, it'll have to move on without ace defensive lineman Kareem Martin, who is off to the NFL after amassing 21.5 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks.

    Replacing Martin and bolstering the defensive front will be key.

22. Marshall Thundering Herd

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 10-4

    2014 Achilles Heel: Rush defense

    The Marshall offense figures to be one of the best in college football next year.

    Quarterback Rakeem Cato is back for his senior season with more than 10,000 career passing yards to his name. He'll also have his favorite target, receiver Tommy Shuler, returning.

    The only thing that will keep the Thundering Herd from the Conference USA title is exactly what lost them that crown last year: their rush defense.

    Marshall was gouged in a loss to Middle Tennessee for 308 rushing yards in October and that issue reared its head again in the C-USA title game when Rice tallied 248 yards on the ground to take the league crown.

    If the Herd can right that ship, they can take the next step and win the league.

21. Clemson Tigers

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 11-2

    2014 Achilles Heel: Florida State

    Even with the losses of stars Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, Clemson will likely be the second-best team in the ACC—but therein lies the problem.

    As long as Florida State has Jameis Winston, the sheriff of the league, at the helm.

    That was the problem for the Tigers in 2013. They were a good team but weren't anywhere near the level of the Seminoles.

    Clemson figures to be competitive yet again with another talented senior at quarterback, Cole Stoudt, likely to take over and a new crop of playmakers coming in.

    However, it won't be enough to take down FSU and win the ACC.

20. Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 10-4

    2014 Achilles Heel: Defense

    Strong defensive play brought Arizona State to another level last year and was a major part of its Pac-12 North Division title run.

    The offense should be fine again, even with the loss of running back Marion Grice.

    However, the defense could be in some trouble with eight starters departing. Leading tacklers Chris Young and Alden Darby are gone, as are top pass rushers Carl Bradford, Will Sutton and Davon Coleman. Interception leader Robert Nelson is gone as well.

    With so many players leaving, Arizona State's defense won't be near the force it was last season, which will make life difficult in the Pac-12.

19. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Joe Raymond/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 9-4

    2014 Achilles Heel: Daunting schedule

    Notre Dame should be solid in 2014.

    It's offense will benefit from the return of quarterback Everett Golson and running backs Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston.

    The defense will be talented as well, even with the losses of Stephon Tuitt and others. Head coach Brian Kelly has a great crop of young athletes ready to take on larger roles.

    But even though the Fighting Irish will be skilled, they won't be good enough to navigate their loaded schedule.

    Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina, Arizona State, USC and Florida State are among the tests coming ND's way this season.

18. Kansas State Wildcats

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 8-5

    2014 Achilles Heel: Defensive overhaul

    Kansas State was a veteran squad that, as the season went along, improved with each game.

    A big part of that was the defensive leadership represented by star safety Ty Zimmerman. However, he'll be gone, along with seven starters in total. Leading tackler Blake Slaughter is one of those departing prospects.

    Ryan Mueller and Dante Barnett will be depended on to lead the way this season. Next year's squad could be similar to last year: much better late in the season than early in the season.

    That could be trouble, particularly with Auburn looming in September.

17. Ole Miss Rebels

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 8-5

    2014 Achilles Heel: Inconsistent quarterback play

    Ole Miss will have talent on defense and at the skill positions on offense, making the x-factor quarterback Bo Wallace.

    In theory, Wallace should be set with two experienced running backs and talent at receiver going into his senior year.

    Wallace looked outstanding at times last year, but his mistakes often led directly to losses. Seven of his 10 interceptions came in losses.

    The Rebels have the ability to compete in the SEC, but Wallace's play will be the difference between another mediocre season and the coveted 10-win mark.

16. Baylor Bears

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    Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    2013 Record: 11-2

    2014 Achilles Heel: Defense

    The Baylor offense is a given. Even with departures of Tevin Reese, Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin, the Bears will put up plenty of points.

    But while Bryce Petty will return to lead a strong offense, the defense could be another story. That defensive play made a major difference in the Bears' Big 12 title run.

    Ahmad Dixon, Sam Holl, Eddie Lackey and several other key contributors are gone. Those are players who have been leading the Baylor defense for several seasons.

    Without them, the Bears won't be as formidable as they were last year.

15. Wisconsin Badgers

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    David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

    2013 Record: 9-4

    2014 Achilles Heel: One-sided offense

    Wisconsin once again boasted one of the most productive rushing offenses in college football last year. It was No. 8 in the nation with 283.8 rushing yards per contest.

    With that type of rushing attack, the Badgers will be competing for the Big Ten title once again.

    The only question will come with the play of Joel Stave at quarterback. Stave was just under 3,000 yards passing last year but threw 13 interceptions.

    If UW wants to take the next step and actually win the league title in 2014, it'll need to have better play at the quarterback position.

14. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

    2013 Record: 11-2

    2014 Achilles Heel: Pass defense

    One of South Carolina's strengths last year was its pass defense. It started up front with one of the best pass rushes in the nation, but Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton will be gone from that defensive line.

    That rush allowed the Gamecocks corners to play physical and shut down opposing receivers. However, both of their starting corners, Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree, are gone.

    Those losses will be prove to be crippling—perhaps even more so than the departure of quarterback Connor Shaw.

    South Carolina might need to find a new defensive edge in 2014.

13. Missouri Tigers

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    Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    2013 Record: 12-2

    2014 Achilles Heel: Young defense

    Missouri was one of the surprise teams of the 2013 season, winning the divisional title in the stacked SEC East.

    The Tigers won't sneak up on anyone in 2014 and they'll have to carry on without several of their best defenders.

    The offense should recover from the loss of James Franklin with Maty Mauk set to take over, but it might not be that easy for the defense.

    Kony Ealy and Michael Sam are gone from the defensive front, leading tackler Andrew Wilson is out of the linebacking corps and star corner E.J. Gaines is among several departures from the secondary.

    With so much overhaul on that side of the ball, the Tigers could have a very tough time defending their East title.

12. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 8-5

    2014 Achilles Heel: Pass defense

    Georgia wasn't great at defending the pass in 2013.

    The Bulldogs were sunk by poor secondary play against Auburn and were gouged on a few other occasions. As a result, they finished ninth in the SEC against the pass.

    That secondary will grow up a bit, but it'll also lose one of its most talented players. Safety/nickel corner Josh Harvey-Clemons was recently dismissed from the team.

    Bolstering the secondary will be priority No. 1 for new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. If he can make that happen, the Bulldogs will be in good shape. If not, it could be tough sledding in the East.

11. USC Trojans

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 10-4

    2014 Achilles Heel: Coaching overhaul

    When Steve Sarkisian took over at USC, he overhauled nearly its entire coaching staff, leaving the squad to become accustomed to a new system.

    The Trojans will have to adapt quickly with a trip to Stanford coming in Week 2.

    USC will be on the short list of legitimate Pac-12 title contenders but a lot of responsibility will be on the defense that will be under a new coordinator, Justin Wilcox, with several key players departing.

    If Wilcox can develop the Trojans' young defense quickly, they'll be in great shape. However, that will be easier said than done, even for a proven coach like Wilcox.

10. LSU Tigers

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 10-3

    2014 Achilles Heel: Youth

    Most other teams would be crippled by the losses LSU faced in the offseason, sending a great crop of players to the NFL.

    However, as well has Les Miles and Co. have been recruiting, talent won't be the issue—but youth certainly will.

    Anthony Jennings (or perhaps newcomer Brandon Harris) will be in his first year starting at quarterback. Meanwhile, most key parts of LSU's loaded 2014 recruiting class, including running back Leonard Fournette and receiver Malachi Dupre, won't be on hand for spring practice.

    The talent will be there—but it'll have to grow up quickly. No matter how skilled these newcomers might be, some mistakes are bound to come with untested players.

9. UCLA Bruins

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 10-3

    2014 Achilles Heel: Defensive youth

    UCLA was a well-rounded squad last year but fell just a bit short of contention for the Pac-12 title.

    With the return of quarterback Brett Hundley, hopes are high for the Bruins in 2014. However, while Hundley is gunning for Heisman Trophy contention, the defense could be in question.

    Several key players, including All-American linebacker Anthony Barr, Cassius Marsh and Jordan Zumwalt, will depart from the defense.

    Myles Jack will be back after a freshman All-American campaign, and he should be able to devote most of his time to his defensive duties. However, if other pieces around him aren't able to fill the gaps, wins over powerful offensive clubs like Oregon will be hard to secure.

8. Michigan State Spartans

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 13-1

    2014 Achilles Heel: Defensive leadership

    Michigan State improved from August to January as much as any team in college football.

    Many of those strides came on the offensive side, as Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford developed into a force that perfectly complemented the stingy Spartans defense.

    That duo is back and the offense figures to be in very good shape. However, the other side of the ball will have to replace most of its leadership from that impressive 2013 run.

    Linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are gone, while Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis are out of the secondary.

    Who will be the leader of the 2014 unit? The answer to that question could decide the Big Ten title. 

7. Stanford Cardinal

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    Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

    2013 Record: 11-3

    2014 Achilles Heel: Diminished rushing attack

    Looking forward to Stanford's 2014 campaign, the burning questions are about the defense. How will the Cardinal replace Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds, Trent Murphy and others?

    While that is a legitimate worry, the bigger problem could be on the other side of the ball, where the Cardinal will return just one starting offensive lineman.

    That lineman, Andrus Peat, is a great one. However, he'll need to lead a new-look cast that will be blocking for a new group of running backs.

    Given the losses of Tyler Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson and several blockers, Stanford's biggest strength is a mystery going into the season.

6. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

    2013 Record: 11-2

    2014 Achilles Heel: QB inconsistency

    One question will have a bigger say in the Big 12 title race than any other: Which Trevor Knight will show up? And also, can he stay healthy?

    The Knight from the Sugar Bowl will almost certainly have the Sooners in the College Football Playoff.

    But the banged-up and inconsistent Knight that played most of the 2013 regular season will have them on the outside looking in at the Big 12 title race.

    Oklahoma will experienced on the offensive front and all across the defense, but if Knight falters, that experience won't matter.

5. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 12-2

    2014 Achilles Heel: Offensive line

    Braxton Miller and the talent around him at the skill positions will have Ohio State a contender in the Big Ten.

    The defense is left as the major question in the eyes of many, particularly after the losses of Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby.

    While that unit was OSU's Achilles heel last year, the biggest worry this season should be the offensive line.

    The Buckeyes will have to replace four starters up front. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner is still optimistic about that unit going into the spring, per Bill Rabinowitz, The Columbus Dispatch:

    We have some good young players and some older ones who haven’t played much. What we lack is experience, but I think we’re going to have enough talent. I know we have a good work ethic. They’re tough. They train hard.

    They’ve had a really good offseason in terms of their training and their development. We just have to get them up to speed, and experience comes from playing.

    While optimism from the coaching staff is great, an all-new offensive line block for two new running backs still isn't a great formula for a team that expects to compete for a national title.

4. Auburn Tigers

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 12-2

    2014 Achilles Heel: Pass defense

    Auburn was almost a complete team last year.

    The Tigers had a lethal offense and a great defensive line, but their poor pass defense left them just short of a national title.

    Ryan Black of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Via The Anniston Star) touched on that issue in early March:

    The biggest questions on defense are reserved for the secondary. The Tigers have to replace two starters in cornerback Chris Davis and safety Ryan Smith. Ryan White, a capable and versatile backup who played in every game last year, also graduated. 

    Auburn tried to address these concerns by signing six defensive backs in its 2014 recruiting class. That won’t help this spring, however, as none will enroll until later this year.

    The Tigers were second-to-last in the SEC in pass defense. Their secondary nearly sunk them several times, including against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, but they managed to win each of those contests.

    It finally cost them in Florida State's final drive in the national title game. With two starters leaving the secondary, will the Tigers defend the pass well enough to win it all this time around?

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 11-2

    2014 Achilles Heel: Quarterback play

    Turnover to the NFL is old hat to Alabama.

    The Crimson Tide are used to pumping stars into the pros each season. But for the past few years, AJ McCarron has been a constant at quarterback.

    Now, 'Bama is left with one major question: Who will replace McCarron?

    Will it be senior Blake Sims, Florida State transfer Jacob Coker or one of two young guns, David Cornwell or Cooper Bateman?

    Whichever player wins the battle won't have to throw for 3,500 yards to be successful, but their play will still decide if the Tide can reclaim the national crown.

2. Oregon Ducks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 11-2

    2014 Achilles Heel: Rush defense

    Oregon will return almost its entire offense from last year, including Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota at quarterback.

    That will leave the Ducks with one question—and it's a question they've heard before. Can UO defend well enough to win a national title?

    They defended the pass pretty well last year, only allowing more than 300 yards through the air twice. However, their run defense killed their national title hopes.

    Oregon was smashed by Stanford and ripped by Arizona, falling short of the Pac-12 title.

    Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich addressed the hot-button issue of physicality in March, per Andrew Greif, The Oregonian.

    We’re trying to obviously get a little bigger, a little more physical, all those things and with that there’s an element of risk but we’re relatively healthy for this time of year coming out of the phase of strength training and building. You watch your entire offseason the offense and defense and special teams … it's just the little tiny fraction that would have been the difference in a successful play.

    If they want to go from great to elite, the Ducks will have to have a defense that can pick up the slack if the offense falters at all.

1. Florida State Seminoles

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    Phil Sears/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 14-0

    2014 Achilles Heel: Defensive leadership

    Florida State was complete football team last year, led by Jameis Winston on offense and veteran leaders at every level of its defense.

    The offense will be in good hands with Winston returning, but the defense is in question.

    Defensive back Lamarcus Joyer, linebacker and leading tackler Telvin Smith and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan are all off to the NFL—leaving FSU at a major loss on the defensive side.

    With players like Jalen Ramsey and Mario Edwards Jr., the Seminoles will undoubtedly be talented, but defense is about more than talent. Who will step up and be the vocal leaders on that side of the ball?