College Football's New Look

ESPNAPI_IMG_NO_ALTEXT_Value

This week, ESPN.com is examining the top contenders for the College Football Playoff. Yesterday, we narrowed the field from 16 to eight, focusing on a unique talent or skill that differentiated our remaining teams. But talent alone isn't enough to prevail in the playoff era.

Today, we whittle the list of contenders from eight to four, identifying a challenge facing each team this spring, and how they're working to turn a potential pitfall into an opportunity.

The Contenders | The Talent | The Strategy

The Strategy

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The older players saw the change in attitude earlier this spring during the Fourth Quarter, Alabama's offseason conditioning program.

"You didn't really hear anybody whining about it," Crimson Tide junior safety Landon Collins said. "Like, if you was here last year, 'Man, why we gotta do this? Why we gotta do so many?' Everybody just came in this year and said, 'We only got 16. Let's just get it done. Let's get it out the way.' And that's how it was. That's how we did it, and it was fantastic."

The team that won two straight BCS championships finished last season on a two-game losing streak. The postmortems on last season revealed a team that didn't bother to take care of details.

"The older guys kind of let it slide," junior center Ryan Kelly said. "... [If] anybody really would do something that didn't reflect how we do things, no one would stand up and say that. So it kind of just let everything get pushed underneath the rug."

Where Alabama tripped over it on the last play against Auburn and pretty much every play of the Sugar Bowl.

"We just didn't have the proper respect for what it takes to win," coach Nick Saban said. "And that's what you're trying to get people to do without having something bad happen. Not having to have a thunderbolt strike everybody and say 'OK, it's time to wake up and do it right.' Because you can't afford that."

Saban spent the offseason refocusing his team. He also tried to foment connections among his players, who now come from 18 states across four time zones. In the offseason, they went to a movie, went bowling, held a pingpong tournament. Saban is searching for that interdependence that connects a locker room.

"Look, it's human nature, you know," Saban said. "And you're trying to overcome human nature. You're trying to get people to be special, beyond normal. Most people respond better when things go bad than when they go good."

At Alabama, 11-2 is a bad thing.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has spent the offseason telling anyone who asked that the Tigers will not change a thing from how they prepared a year ago, even if they are in a much different place in 2014.

A year ago, Auburn finished with a 3-9 record that left the program in tatters. A year ago, Malzahn and his staff had to earn the trust of his players, even though most of them knew Malzahn from his time as offensive coordinator (2009-11).

In this offseason, the Tigers are coming off a 12-2 season. Most of us see that as 12 wins and two losses. Malzahn is holding a different lens. He sees that as 13 seconds short of a BCS championship, and one job left painfully undone.

When he says he wants nothing to change, he means that he wants his players to maintain the same hunger they brought a year ago, when they climbed from the bottom of college football back to the top.

"It will be a memory, a positive memory we will have for the rest of our lives as players and as a group," Malzahn said. "But, when you're that close, and as a coach, you're always looking for things to motivate you. I am extremely motivated. Our players are extremely motivated."

Senior center Reese Dismukes enrolled in the winter of 2011, while the campus still reveled in the euphoria of the Tigers' national championship. He saw the program slide to the bottom over two years, and he has seen it climb back. He's not all that interested in being patted on the back for coming up one rung short.

"We don't really look at it like that," Dismukes said. "... We didn't win it, obviously. You want to win. You just have that fire in you. You want to get back to that big stage. As hard as it is in this league, you're going to have to work even harder than you did before."

Maybe Malzahn is onto something. How do you repeat a season when you beat your two biggest rivals on last-minute miracles in consecutive games? You don't. Malzahn and the Tigers are braced for a re-entry into the real world.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimbo Fisher needed four seasons to lead Florida State back to the top of the sport, where the Seminoles signed a long-term lease in the 1990s. It was not an easy climb. As seamlessly as he took control of the program from Bobby Bowden, the Seminoles had their guts wrenched on the way to the top. Now that they have proven Florida State is the best again, the Seminoles are counting on the memory of their disappointment in 2012 on propelling them this season.

"Are we going to fall off like we did [my freshman] year?" defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. asked.

Edwards said the upperclassmen remember losing a 16-0 lead in the second half at NC State in 2012. The defense remembers allowing the Wolfpack to convert three fourth downs on the final drive. The Wolfpack scored the winning touchdown on the last one with :16 to play.

Florida State has won 15 consecutive ACC games since that loss. It has won 16 consecutive games overall. There are a lot of reasons to feel self-satisfied.

How will the Seminoles beat complacency? Do they, even with 14 returning starters, understand the forces that will be pulling at them? Last month, quarterback Jameis Winston illustrated once again his toughest opponent stares at him from the mirror.

Fisher wants his players to take confidence from being champions, but not self-satisfaction. He worries about a collective feeling of, "'I was the reason.' Everyone thinks they are the reason," Fisher said. "No one's the reason you won. No one's the reason you lost. But collectively, we're the reason you won and the reason you lost."

So far, his players are saying the right things.

"We're not complacent," Edwards said. "We're hunting for another one. The team that won last year had a one-year lifespan. We have to go get it this time."

The difference between a good season and a good program is that long-term lease on dominance. This season will go a long way toward deciding whether Fisher gets to sign it.

EUGENGE, Ore. -- As a younger coach, long before he had invested 21 seasons in the Oregon Ducks, Don Pellum went to the NCAA workshops that serve as mixers for athletic directors and minority coaches.

"At a certain point if you want to be a coordinator or head coach, you have to hop on that train," Pellum said. "I just made a decision that I'm in a great place. Oregon has been a great place."

And so he stayed. Pellum got used to seeing coaching friends show up on the recruiting trail wearing a different logo every year or two. But he remained secure in his decision to stay with the Ducks. It may have taken longer for him than most, but Pellum got the best of both worlds. He and his wife Marla never left Eugene, and, in January, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich promoted Pellum adding the job of defensive coordinator to his duties as inside linebackers coach.

Helfrich is acutely aware of the Oregon tradition of promoting from within, since that's how he replaced Chip Kelly a year ago. Helfrich said he didn't limit his search to his defensive staff. But he didn't waste a lot of time naming Pellum, either.

"He's a really good coach," Helfrich said. "He's a very organized guy, a disciplined guy, a smart guy, and the players love him."

Senior corner and defensive leader Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is delighted with the coaching change.

"Coach Pellum makes sure everything is structured, you could say," Ekpre-Olomu said. "That's where he can help our team out, because a lot of our guys need that. .... He's able to come up to you in practice and get [the information] to you and at the same time get to the next play. That's one of his strengths, really. He's a great motivator."

Pellum plans to change Oregon's methods of blitzing opposing quarterbacks. The Ducks, even though they finished seventh in the FBS in defensive passing efficiency, finished seventh in the Pac-12 with 29 sacks. But, per the norm at Oregon, anything other than a smooth transition would be a shock. If nothing else, the new defensive coordinator knows the place.


The Talent

Editor's note: To whittle our list of playoff contenders from 16 to eight, we identified that unique talent or skill that each remaining team possesses to differentiate it.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. --  Jacob Coker has been on the Alabama campus for 15 days. He is recuperating from surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He has yet to throw to a single Crimson Tide receiver.

And as he goes, so goes the Alabama offense.

Over the last five seasons, Alabama has won three national championships, which is one more than they've had starting quarterbacks. Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron each sat and learned. When their time came, each of them excelled.

But the quarterbacks recruited behind them didn't progess at the same pace. You can pin it on inexperience or faulty recruiting or the effect of coach Nick Saban needing three offensive coordinators in his first six seasons. Whatever your flavor, when Coker, like McCarron a graduate of Mobile St. Paul's, decided he didn't want to spend his last two seasons of college football eligibility as Jameis Winston's backup at Florida State, he graduated and enrolled at Alabama.

If Coker were a horse, he would look good in the Daily Racing Form. His grandfather Jules Mugnier was a two-sport star at Spring Hill College and became a champion golfer in Mobile, where he is a member of the local sports hall of fame.

In addition to the bloodlines, Coker has a résumé. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher insisted that Coker pushed Winston to the limit before Winston won the starting job. After spring practice a year ago, Fisher described Coker as "a big, strong guy that can think. Really knows the offense, tough guy, big-time arm strength, can get the ball vertically and throw the underneath game."

Coker couldn't stay healthy in 2013. He struggled with a broken bone in his foot during spring practice before suffering the knee injury in the middle of the season. Once Coker committed to Alabama in January, and remained in Tallahassee to complete his degree, he had training and strength staffs on two campuses interested in his rehabilitation.

To be completely clear, half a state, Coker's native state, wants to see him at full strength. As far as Alabama fans are concerned, Coker can't get healthy fast enough.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah reflected on the strides Auburn made in going from 3-9 in 2012 to 12-2 in 2013, and why he expects the Tigers to improve on finishing 13 seconds short of the national championship.

"We have been in this offense, this defense, under [strength] coach [Ryan] Russell for a little more than a year," Uzomah said. "It's time for us to elevate it a little more."

For nearly every upperclassman, that is true. But not quarterback Nick Marshall, who, after arriving in August without the benefit of spring practice or summer workouts, took the Tigers so far. Learning the offense as the season progressed, Marshall finished with 3,044 yards of total offense and accounted for 26 touchdowns.

"He came in, and he wasn't here for anything," said Uzomah, who caught 11 passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns in 2013. "It took us a while to say, 'All right, we can really trust this guy.' Last year, in general, he grew every game and showed unbelievable ability to throw the ball when he needed to, like Mississippi State, or run the ball against Tennessee for 200-plus yards."

Rarely did any defense expose Marshall's inexperience. Florida State did a good job on him in the second half of the BCS National Championship, limiting him to 19 rushing yards and no touchdown passes, while converting a fourth-quarter pick into seven points.

And now, Marshall has gone through a winter and a spring practice with the Tigers. Before spring ball began, Marshall organized throwing drills with the receivers so they could continue getting familiar with each other. Their progress became self-evident in the spring game, when Marshall completed 13 of 22 passes for 236 yards and four touchdowns in one half. Those are the kinds of numbers that make you the game's offensive MVP.

Uzomah said Marshall told the offense, "Whoever has the ball, no matter what, we have to sell out for them. I have the ball. I have the opportunity to make something happen. You guys have to trust me. And we do. I think that's a pretty big difference -- his confidence in himself and our confidence in him."

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- One eyeful of Florida State junior defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. explains why he once filled the spot atop the 2012 ESPN recruit rankings. He is a large man -- 6-foot-3, 294 pounds -- who doesn't move large. His trunk looks like it could support an oak, yet he doesn't rumble when he walks. He has hands like steaks, the kind that if you finish it, you eat free.

For a season and a half, Edwards remained more potential star than star. And then, in the second half of the Seminoles' 2013 national championship season, something clicked. Edwards began to disrupt offenses like a cop making a raid.

He had a sack and forced a fumble in Florida State's 37-7 smackdown of in-state rival Florida, and then led all comers with three tackles for loss, including a 10-yard sack of Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, in the BCS National Championship.

The difference, according to Edwards, is he figured out that potential and talent alone couldn't get the job done. He had to work at it.

"I started taking the playbook seriously," he said.

Defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri rode Edwards hard. Sunseri kept telling Edwards that he had to learn not only his job but also those of the players around him.

"It's hard work, but it paid off in the end," Edwards said. "Honestly, Coach Sal is a different kind of cat. He's really, really hard on you. ... I realized he wasn't just picking on me. He didn't have favorites. He tells everyone the same. He was going to get on you. It helped me with dealing with adversity."

Edwards always had the physical ability. Now, Sunseri has made him develop the mental toughness to go with it. With the way Edwards finished last season, people will expect him to make those kinds of big plays every Saturday this fall.

But who are we kidding? They already did.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Some of the key pieces from Michigan State's "Spartan Dawgs" defense a year ago may be gone, but the standard isn't. Neither is the architect of that defense.

Despite all of the Spartans' personnel losses, the biggest news this offseason in East Lansing was that defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi decided to stay put after passing on the UConn head coaching gig. Narduzzi, the Frank Broyles Award winner last season as the nation's top assistant coach, has helped construct the Big Ten's No. 1 defense for three straight seasons. Michigan State was the only FBS school last season to rank in the top three nationally in total defense, rushing defense, scoring defense and passing defense.

"It wasn't just one year. We've been in the top 10 in the country the last three years," Narduzzi said. "Yeah, it's hard to beat what you did last year, without a doubt. We lost some good players. But the system is there, and we need to make sure we fit kids into the system and get them playing like we need to."

They return what should be the best tandem of defensive ends in the Big Ten in Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, and even without Darqueze Dennard, the secondary is in good hands with All-Big Ten safety Kurtis Drummond and junior cornerback Trae Waynes, who's ready to step up as the Spartans' next lockdown corner.

"[Narduzzi] is as hard on us as he ever was," Calhoun said. "He's always going to be that same guy, yelling and screaming, telling you what you're not doing right. The biggest thing is that we take the coaching. You could progressively see the guys understanding what he wanted done. We matured. With us staying on each other as hard and as tough as he has, we've just continued clicking. This year isn't going to be any different."

There will be some new starters at linebacker, but seniors Mylan Hicks and Taiwan Jones, plus juniors Darien Harris and Ed Davis, return.

"We've established what we're going to be here on defense, and you don't want to be that team that doesn't live up to those expectations," Drummond said. "We have depth at every position, every level, and we're a team that's going to play all four quarters. Some teams can't handle all four quarters. That's something we pride ourselves on."

NORMAN, Okla. -- The most popular player at Oklahoma's spring game in April has yet to enroll in classes.

Joe Mixon, ESPN's No. 6 running back and No. 53 overall recruit in the 2014 class, spent much of OU's spring game signing autographs and posing for photos with fans. Mixon traveled from California to watch the action from the sideline.

OU coach Bob Stoops has made it clear that Mixon and fellow incoming freshman and ESPN 300 prospect Samaje Perine will have a chance to compete for serious playing time this coming season.

"We don't hesitate to play freshmen," Stoops said.

In 2004, OU freshman tailback Adrian Peterson set NCAA freshman records by running for 1,925 yards on 339 carries. Seemingly every OU freshman running back has been compared to Peterson ever since.

The Sooners lose their top three runners from last season, and while Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and Damien Williams were productive players, they've lacked a superstar in the backfield since DeMarco Murray left for the NFL. Murray was OU's last 1,000-yard runner, gaining 1,214 yards in 2010.

Don't be surprised if Mixon is the next one.

Mixon, who ran for more than 4,200 yards during a four-year career at Oakley (Calif.) Freedom, will compete with sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross when he arrives on campus in June. Ford had problems hanging onto the football last year, and Ross was in Stoops' doghouse after picking up a personal foul on his first career carry.

Stoops, however, complimented Ross' work during the offseason and spring practice.

"I paid my dues and waited my time," Ross said. "I felt like I needed time to get acclimated to everything around here."

Hopefully for the Sooners, Mixon doesn't have the same problem.

EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is 8 pounds heavier than last season, which is only natural for a 20-year-old who works his Ducktail off in the weight room. But to be honest, if Mariota came back as the physical specimen of the first eight games of last year, no one would argue.

The sprained left MCL that slowed Mariota down for the last five games took away his escapability and quickness. The injury took away his status as a Heisman front-runner, too. That's how good he had been in leading Oregon to the No. 3 ranking. Now that the redshirt junior has gone through spring practice and been even better, let's just say there's an air of confidence in Eugene.

"Knock on wood, he's right where you want him to be," coach Mark Helfrich said.

That means Mariota is healthy, a year older and a year more mature. At 6-foot-4, and now 218 pounds, Mariota's mere presence commands attention in a way it never has before. He is, by all acclaim, gentle by nature, which is not a quality that translates well onto the football field.

"It's still harder for me," Mariota said. "I've got to go through constant reminders. 'Hey, you gotta pick your voice up a little bit.' I think the biggest thing for me is my body language. Coach Helfrich is always in the back, saying, 'Body language. Body language.'"

Which means what?

"Just asserting more confidence," Mariota said. "Just portraying confidence. Coach Helfrich has been on me since I was a freshman. We've built a relationship where he expects more out of me and I really expect more out of me. I really hold myself up to that standard."

Helfrich said his quarterback is "doing a great job" as a leader. He reminds Helfrich of Andrew Walter, whom Helfrich coached at Arizona State a decade ago.

"Andrew was the same type of guy, introverted almost to a fault," Helfrich said. "Marcus is kind of the same way. With both guys, I made them say something to somebody after every play. It could be anything -- 'Nice shoes.' -- literally anything, just to make [him] comfortable."

By last season, Mariota began making impassioned speeches on the sideline. And look at Walter: After four seasons in the NFL, he is running as a Republican in Arizona's 9th Congressional District, which includes the Arizona State campus. Mariota is a prominent candidate in a different election. Heisman voters loved him last year until he got hurt. And Mariota is not hurt any longer.

STANFORD, Calif. -- David Shaw is the eternal optimist, and with a 34-7 record after three seasons at Stanford, why not? The Cardinal are redshirting good players, which means they are replacing experience with experience.

But Shaw rarely has been as over the moon about any position group as he is about his top four receivers.

"I'm trying not to make a bold statement about the receiving corps. But I couldn't be more excited," Shaw said.

You know all about senior Ty Montgomery, whose All-American work as a kick returner last season overshadowed his 61 catches for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns. Montgomery stretches the field as if it were Silly Putty.

It's the other three, and the way they complement Montgomery, who make Shaw giddy. Devon Cajuste is a 6-foot-4, 228-pound junior (28-642-5 in 2013) who can block and take off down the seam. Redshirt sophomore Michael Rector averaged nearly 31 yards per catch last season (14-431-3), and should be comfortable with a greater role this fall.

Senior Jordan Pratt is the possession guy (12-148-0). The precision with which Pratt operates is a reflection of his background. Pratt is 29, married, and majoring in atmosphere and energy engineering.

"Most of the time, the guys in the locker room are completely mature and I forget that I'm 10 years older," Pratt said. "And I'll make a comment, 'Yeah, I remember Sept. 11, 2001. Got called out of my high school class "...' They'll say, 'High school? I don't even remember that!"

Pratt spent eight seasons pitching in the Los Angeles Dodgers' farm system, where his coaches constantly told him he was thinking too much. On the football field, Pratt doesn't have to think.

"I can still spend the time in the film room," Pratt said, "talking to coaches and people who understand the game a lot better than I do and applying my analytical strengths and my thinking like an engineer to the game. Once I get out there, I can let it go."

The biggest sign of the depth of talent is that junior Kodi Whitfield (16-170-1) moved across the line into the secondary.

"He's a natural safety," Shaw said. "I'm excited for him."

When it comes to his receivers, Shaw is just plain excited.

LOS ANGELES -- And now, for an encore, UCLA sophomore Myles Jack will play on both sides of the ball, kick field goals, do sidelines for the Bruins' radio broadcasts, and serve as lead architect for the new $50 million performance center.

OK, maybe we exaggerated just a bit there. Jack, the 6-1, 230-pound linebacker, only seemed as if he could do everything in his freshman season. Jack made 75 tackles, seven behind the line, and also averaged 7.0 yards on 38 carries as a stopgap, bust-up-the-gap tailback.

That's why Jack won the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year Award and the Freshman Defensive Player of the Year Award. That's a first, and so what if the league has been giving out the awards only since 2008? You would have to go back to the World War II era to find a two-way player that talented who was allowed to play varsity (freshmen remained ineligible from the postwar era into the early '70s). Head coach Jim Mora sprung Jack on the world as an offensive talent in the ninth game of the season. Jack rushed for 120 yards against Arizona, including a 66-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter of a narrow 31-26 victory by the Bruins.

So let's read the fine print in that performance. Jack benefitted by the way that offenses had to focus on the Bruins' defensive star, the linebacker and future first-round draft pick Anthony Barr.

This season, Jack will become the focus of a lot more attention. Mora plans to play a lot of nickel this season against the league's spread offenses, which will move Jack from outside linebacker to the middle of the field, where he will be more of a run-stopper and have to perform more vertical drops.

As for running back, that remains the whipped cream on the sundae. Jack said last month that he wants his legacy to stand as one of UCLA's great linebackers, in the footsteps of Barr. He didn't say anything about Maurice Jones-Drew.


The Contenders

Editor's note: ESPN.com used a mock selection committee of 13 college football experts to chose the 16 best teams in the nation for the 2014 season.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In winning 60 of 67 games and three national championships over the last five seasons, Alabama has maintained its dominance while having its best talent cherry-picked by the NFL.

Nowhere has that been more evident than on defense, which has been the engine of this historic run. Ten starters have left early for professional football in the last five seasons. To put a sharper focus on it, five of those 10 have played in the secondary, head coach Nick Saban's private stash of talent.

This year, safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri decided to forgo their senior seasons, joining Dee Milliner (2013), Dre Kirkpatrick (2012) and Kareem Jackson (2010) on the list of early departures.

The steady drain of talent, as well as Sunseri's midseason knee injury, caught up to Alabama's secondary last season. Eight players started at least one game as Saban searched for consistency. Interceptions fell from 18 in 2012 to 11 last season.

The news didn't get much better up front, where sacks plummeted from 35 to 22. There were other ways in which to measure Alabama's defensive dip: Texas A&M's 628 yards; Auburn's 296 rushing yards; Oklahoma's 348 passing yards.

This will be the third time in the last four seasons that Alabama returns fewer than half of its defensive starters. Middle linebacker Trey DePriest is the anchor, having started 24 games over the last two years. Nose guard Brandon Ivory, strong safety Landon Collins and defensive back Jarrick Williams also bring a lot of experience.

But the onus, once again, will be on young players and their ability to ramp up quickly to SEC speed. Alabama opens against West Virginia and its spread offense, the style that became the bane of Saban's offseason existence. Saban got sucked into the on-again, off-again rules change regarding pace of play, and didn't like it one bit.

On the other hand, SEC West quarterbacks Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M) and Zach Mettenberger (LSU) also left for the NFL. That alone should be cause for optimism that the Alabama defense will improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- The Auburn defense lost end Dee Ford, a veteran and a star who led the team in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (10.5). Ford will suit up for Kansas City, which took him with the 23rd pick of the NFL draft earlier this month.

That's no small loss. But overall, the defensive losses for the Tigers are small. Five of the top seven tacklers, and three of the top four tacklers behind the line of scrimmage, are returning next fall for the national runner-up Tigers.

College football lineups change every year by definition. There will always be new blood. But for the Tigers, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson whipped out some old-school lessons to impress upon them the task at hand.

Senior defensive tackle Gabe Wright, second to Ford with 8.5 tackles for loss in 2013, said that Johnson told the defense the story of Sisyphus as a way of describing what they had to do.

"He finally got it up a hill, and it rolled back down," Wright said of Sisyphus, "and he was like, 'What do I do now?'"

That's the position in which the Tigers find themselves. They have to roll the ball back up the hill. Fortunately, they have a wealth of experienced players, including seven defensive starters, five in the front seven.

"We bring back a leadership and experience level that we haven't had since 2010," Wright said, referring to the senior-laden national champions. This year's team has the same makeup.

"Whenever you're able to fill up two full rows of seniors in your team meeting room," Wright said, "good things should happen."

Except for left offensive tackle Greg Robinson, the second player taken in the NFL draft, and running back Tre Mason, the offense returns pretty much intact as well. Quarterback Nick Marshall, who didn't arrive at Auburn until August yet led the Tigers to the brink of the national championship, has the advantage of participating in a spring practice with his coaches and teammates.

It's easy to project Auburn as a one-hit wonder looking for its second smash. But do so at your own peril. In the college game, it's hard to beat experience, and that's something the Tigers have coming out of their ears.

WACO, Texas -- Ask Baylor coach Art Briles about the players he's excited about after the Bears' spring practices and he'll deliver his answer with his distinctive style in his slow, Texas drawl.

On Devin Chafin, redshirt sophomore running back: "If you give him a dollar, you're not going to get any change. He's going to give you everything he's got."

On cornerback Xavien Howard, another spring standout: "If he doesn't make it in football, he might become a police officer. He can lock your ass up."

Briles refers to Bryce Petty, his star quarterback, as "Pettybone,"and although neither is quite sure of its origin, it might have something to do with the fact that Petty was, well, bad to the bone last season.

Petty completed 62 percent of his passes for 4,200 yards with 32 touchdowns in his first season as starting quarterback, leading the Bears to their first Big 12 championship. Even more impressive, he threw only three interceptions in 403 pass attempts and had the fifth-highest total QBR (85.5) among FBS quarterbacks.

"We expect him to be better this season," Briles said. "He should be better -- it's his second year."

The question is: Can Baylor be better in 2014?

Along with replacing Lache Seastrunk, who ran for 1,177 yards with 11 touchdowns in 2013, the Bears lose receiver Tevin Reese and All-American guard Cyril Richardson. But Briles and his staff have stockpiled speedy skill players like cordwood, including perhaps the country's best incoming class of freshman receivers.

"I have weapons -- that's not the problem," Petty said.

He's right; the Bears return four players who finished with at least 30 receptions in 2013.

"I don't think a national championship is out of the question," Petty said. "Why not? It's why I came back."

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Dabo Swinney said it a year ago, and nobody really believed him. So Swinney said it again this spring. And this time, it's hard to disagree with him.

"They all looked at me like I was crazy last year because we had Tajh [Boyd] coming back and Sammy [Watkins] coming back, but I stood there at my press conference and my exact words were that I would be disappointed when the season was over if the strength of our team wasn't our front seven," Swinney said.

The Tigers return one of the deepest, most experienced defensive lines in college football and given the departure on offense of such proven playmakers as Boyd and Watkins, they'll need that unit to be their heart and soul in 2014.

"Nobody knew Vic Beasley then," Swinney said. "Nobody knew Grady Jarrett, and nobody knew Corey Crawford. Nobody even knew their names. I had somebody come in here and do a radio show and asked him if he could give me one name of our defensive linemen. He couldn't name one name, not one of them, and, boy, I used that with those guys. Now, everybody knows those guys."

Clemson returns six seniors up front defensively, including Beasley, one of the top pass-rushers in the country, who had a monster season a year ago with 23 tackles for loss, including 13 sacks.

"We have all the intangibles to be a championship defense and have been working like that all offseason," Beasley said.

The Tigers led the country in tackles for loss last season with a school-record 122 and were second in the nation in three-and-outs per game with an average of 6.1.

Jarrett, who had 11 tackles for loss from his tackle position last season, says the defense still has a chip on its shoulder and believes this unit can match the standard of the great Clemson defenses from the 1980s.

"Everybody was looking at Clemson as being an offensive team," Jarrett said. "We're not trying to compare ourselves to anybody, but those Clemson defenses paved the way to how Clemson defense should be played. That's where we want to get back to."

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State has the best player in the country in quarterback Jameis Winston, who has managed to stay out of trouble for this entire month.

The Seminoles have one of the best tight ends in the nation in Nick O'Leary, a Mackey Award finalist who hasn't gotten in a motorcycle accident in nearly seven weeks.

Florida State has one of most physically talented defensive linemen in the country in Mario Edwards Jr., who waited until the end of his sophomore season to begin to fulfill the potential that made him ESPN's top recruit in 2012.

The point is, with 14 starters returning from the first undefeated national champion in three seasons, Florida State is an obvious favorite to win the first College Football Playoff -- as long as the Seminoles can stay out of their own way.

"We got a different team," Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher said. "But how can we learn from [last season] to be able to repeat performance? Because that's what you have to, to be a champion, you have to keep repeating performance."

Fisher had in mind his team's performance on the field, when the Seminoles won their first 13 games by at least two touchdowns and averaged 51.6 points per game. He had in mind the fight the Seminoles showed in fighting back from a 21-3 deficit to defeat Auburn 34-31 in the BCS National Championship.

But Fisher made that comment in March, before Winston was cited for shoplifting $32.72 worth of crab legs and crawfish last month, nearly five months after he escaped being prosecuted for sexual assault, and before O'Leary suffered his second motorcycle accident in 11 months.

The Seminoles also have one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation (113 returning starts), a veteran threat in senior wideout Rashad Greene, the returning Lou Groza Award winner in redshirt sophomore Roberto Aguayo, and the list goes on and on. We will learn if Florida State can keep from beating itself.

ATHENS, Ga. -- Running backs have become about as popular in the NFL draft as the Kardashians are in the Hamptons.

A running back wasn't selected in draft until the Tennessee Titans chose former Washington star Bishop Sankey with the 54th pick, making 2014 the first year in the common draft era without a running back going in the top 50.

Georgia's Todd Gurley, who might be the best college running back in the country, spent spring practice trying to recover from an ankle injury that hobbled him for much of last season. If Gurley is healthy this coming season, he might prove to NFL teams that he's worthy of a much higher selection.

The Bulldogs are hoping Gurley can lead them back to the top of the SEC East and potentially into a spot in the College Football Playoff. Last season, Gurley was hampered by injuries and a torn ACL sidelined tailback Keith Marshall for the final eight games, causing UGA to limp to a disappointing 8-5 finish.

When Gurley is healthy, he's the kind of player who can carry the Bulldogs, according to UGA offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. With Hutson Mason replacing the record-setting Aaron Murray at quarterback, UGA might need Gurley to remain upright more than ever.

"When Todd's healthy, he's the best back in the country -- hands down," Bobo said. "He can run with power, he can run with speed and he can catch the ball."

Gurley injured his groin in the 2013 opener and then sprained his left ankle in the fourth game. He missed the next three contests and wasn't the same player upon returning.

"You just hate the pain and having to practice with it," Gurley said. "Hopefully not, but I'm pretty sure something else will come up once the season starts up. That's just the sport. You'll have to play with something and you just have to fight through it."

Bobo said Marshall, who ran for 759 yards as a freshman and 246 in five games last season, should be running at full speed by June.

Bobo also expects incoming freshmen Sony Michel (the nation's No. 2 running back recruit in the 2014 ESPN 300) and Nick Chubb (No. 7) to play this coming season.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- No team has been hit harder by the NFL draft recently than LSU. The Tigers have had 18 players selected in the last two drafts.

How does Les Miles cope with such attrition?

"When we lose underclassmen, we have got to recruit to those voids, and we do. Those guys come in [and play]," Miles said. "We played 15 freshmen last year, we played 15 freshmen the year before and we will play 15 freshmen again this year, generally speaking."

The Tigers' ability to withstand such personnel losses by relying on young talent will depend on a recruiting class that ESPN's Recruiting Nation ranked second nationally.

The most likely candidates to make an immediate impact will be on offense, and there are some enormous shoes to fill. With quarterback Zach Mettenberger, tailback Jeremy Hill and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry all out of the picture, LSU might feature freshmen at each of their former positions:

• Tailback Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall recruit in the ESPN 300, has garnered comparisons to Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 1,925 yards and was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy as a freshman at Oklahoma.

• Quarterback Brandon Harris was one of LSU's two early enrollees and clearly outperformed competitor Anthony Jennings in the Tigers' spring game.

• And among the Tigers' four ESPN 300 receiver signees are the No. 1 and 3 wideouts, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, respectively, who could potentially fill the void at a position that lost 72 percent of its production when Beckham and Landry entered the draft.

There are other LSU signees who should contribute immediately. Think safety Jamal Adams, linebacker Clifton Garrett and possibly defensive tackle Travonte Valentine. But if the Tigers are to extend their streak of consecutive 10-win seasons to five, it will be because the offensive standouts from this talented class not only fill the holes on LSU's roster, but also play like the future stars Tigers fans expect them to become.

"Sometimes guys are afraid of young players coming in and taking their position, but here I don't sense that," LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "I sense guys like the competition and they know we're going to need everybody to win a championship."

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook wants you to do the math.

"How many five-star guys do we have on our team?" he asks. "Not many. How many four-star guys do we have on our team? Not many. But how many good football players do we have? A lot. They know what they want here in players and know how to develop those players."

Cook is a living, breathing example of what's made Michigan State one of the hottest programs in college football the last few years.

He came to East Lansing in 2011 as a three-star prospect out of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and wasn't on everybody's wish list, but he enters the 2014 season as one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten after winning MVP honors in both the Big Ten championship game and Rose Bowl last season.

The Spartans have won 11 or more games three of the last four seasons and finished in the top 15 of the polls three times during that stretch. Yet, they've never finished in the top 25 nationally of ESPN's recruiting rankings under coach Mark Dantonio, who takes immense pride in the developmental component of Michigan State's program.

"Coach D [Dantonio] goes for the guys who are Michigan State-quality guys," Cook said.

All-America defensive end Shilique Calhoun is yet another example. He, too, wasn't highly recruited, but returns for his junior season after registering 14 tackles for loss, including 7.5 sacks, last season.

"There's a reason we call ourselves Spartan Dawgs, because we're all hungry, all hard-nosed, and we're going to come out swinging and never let up," Calhoun said.

So while All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard, All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough and All-Big Ten safety Isaiah Lewis are all gone, the Spartans have proven that they know how to reload, which goes back to what has set this program apart under Dantonio. From running back Jeremy Langford and offensive tackle Jack Conklin on offense to defensive end Marcus Rush, cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond on defense, Michigan State just keeps churning out players, and most importantly, teams that can line up and play with anybody.

"The Rose Bowl was a big goal, but the national championship is still out there," Calhoun said.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Braxton Miller's inability to throw during Ohio State's spring camp presented an opportunity for the Buckeyes to push the envelope in furthering the senior quarterback's education.

Miller's physical tools are well documented, so the Buckeyes had no problem shutting him down during March and April after offseason shoulder surgery. With a little creativity and some technology, the coaching staff turned the practice field into a classroom.

Miller participated in drills with a camera on his hat to monitor how he was reading defenses from behind the play and a microphone that recorded him calling out where he would deliver the ball. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman reviewed the film to grade his decision-making process.

After practices, Herman would assign Miller homework that included his own video review of other quarterbacks, including grading the live practice reps of redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett.

That Miller could have a productive spring without throwing is a tribute to both him and a support staff that did everything it possibly could to maximize his time while recovering from his shoulder surgery.

"You're talking about the Big Ten Player of the Year two years in a row," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "I believe he gets it now, and he's a wonderful kid that wants to be great.

"I think he had a great spring."

Meyer helped set up a meeting between Miller and Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly to talk shop, and more of those types of informational sessions are still planned -- including practice runs the Buckeyes are putting together to simulate Jon Gruden's QB Camp.

Another potentially valuable silver lining to not having the starter taking snaps this spring was the coaching staff got to take a closer look at the candidates to fill Kenny Guiton's spot as the backup, a role that was critical in a handful of wins over the last two seasons when Miller was forced to the sideline due to injury.

Ideally the Buckeyes wouldn't have to worry much about those health concerns in the fall if they're going to make a run at a title. But in the spring, they had no problem with it at all.

NORMAN, Okla. -- The breaking point for Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight came midway through spring practice in 2013.

Coming off a redshirt season at OU in 2012, Knight was battling Blake Bell and Kendal Thompson for the Sooners' starting job. But after a couple of weeks of spring practice, Knight looked and felt like the team's third-best quarterback.

"It was stressful," Knight recalled. "It was really the first adversity I'd faced in sports."

But after Knight led the Sooners to a 45-31 upset of No. 3 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, he's the Sooners' undisputed starter at quarterback. He completed 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards with four touchdowns, the most completions ever allowed by a Nick Saban-coached Crimson Tide defense.

"It's what we expected from him all along," OU coach Bob Stoops said.

With one breakout performance, Knight went from relative anonymity to celebrity on the OU campus. No matter where Knight goes, from sporting events to restaurants, he's a popular target for autographs and photographs.

"It's sort of amusing for us friends," said OU center Ty Darlington, Knight's roommate. "We walk into a room with him and wait for the moment we see the recognition in their eyes, and people start whispering when they notice him. It always happens."

In only a few short months, Knight has gone from an unknown to the leader of OU's offense. During the offseason, Bell volunteered to move to tight end and Thompson transferred to Utah, leaving Knight as the Sooners' elder statesman under center.

Knight isn't looking over his shoulder anymore - unless it's for someone seeking his autograph.

"This allows me to step into a leadership role maybe a little bit easier than it would have been," Knight said. "It's a good feeling. I have a good grasp of what's going on, and I feel like the guys are rallying behind me. I'm just being able to pour my confidence into them and be able to play."

EUGENE, Ore. -- They pride themselves on continuity at Oregon. Over the past two decades, the football program has been handed down from head coach to offensive coordinator. Rich Brooks took the Ducks to the 1995 Rose Bowl and handed it over to Mike Bellotti, whose 2001 team should have played for the BCS title and didn't. Bellotti handed his program over to Chip Kelly, and Oregon lost the 2011 BCS championship to Auburn on the last play of the game.

Kelly, after taking the Ducks to four consecutive BCS bowls, handed the program over to Mark Helfrich, and now's the time to pull out the inkblot. Do you see a team that went 11-2 and shared the Pac-12 North title? Or do you see a team that suffered its biggest loss (42-16 at Arizona) in five seasons and played in the Valero Alamo Bowl?

Then there's the departure of longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti and the, yes, in-house promotion of linebackers coach Don Pellum to replace him. Oregon has very subtly entered the biggest transition it has undergone in some time. Over the past 12 months, the Ducks have introduced a new head coach and two new coordinators (Scott Frost was promoted to offensive coordinator, replacing Helfrich).

Or there's the real reason that Oregon slipped in the second half of last season: the sprained MCL in quarterback Marcus Mariota's left knee. Mariota without his wheels is a Porsche stuck in first gear.

Mariota is healthy now, bigger and stronger and coming off a very good spring, which is good, because Helfrich doesn't want to pin the Ducks' November slump on any one player. Not even his best one.

"Stuff happens. That's something that happens," Helfrich said. "That's part of the reason we don't talk about it. At some level, it becomes an excuse. Everybody deals with stuff. Our guys battled, certainly in the Stanford game [a 26-20 Cardinal victory], as hard as we could. We did not battle as hard as we could in the Arizona game, which is probably even that much more frustrating as to why. But we'll learn from it and we moved on."

Oregon is a veteran team and a hungry one. The BCS bowls may be history, but the Ducks want everyone to know they are not.

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Without Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina's defense will take on a different look in 2014.

Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has big plans for his linebackers, and in watching the Gamecocks practice this spring, it's obvious they're going to get their best athletes on the field.

"It could be a mixture of 4-3 and 3-4 with those linebackers stunting around and coming from a lot of different directions," coach Steve Spurrier said. "That may be good for us because our young linebackers are pretty good players.

"We'll be a little different defensively, and if we have to get pressure with linebackers, we'll do that instead of just Clowney. Right now, some of these other rushers aren't close to what he was able to do, but they're coming."

This group of linebackers, led by budding star Skai Moore, has a chance to be as good as the Gamecocks have put on the field under Spurrier. They're fast, versatile and stout enough to hold up in the run game. Ward wants Moore to continue bulking up to hold up physically, but he's a ball magnet from his weak-side spot.

Moore isn't the only linebacker capable of causing problems, either. Marcquis Roberts, after two injury-filled seasons, looks like a natural at middle linebacker, which is the deepest unit on defense with Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman also returning.

Ward also has some flexibility at the hybrid "spur" position with Sharrod Golightly, Larenz Bryant and Jordan Diggs, who's coming off his best spring.

Up front, while there might not be a Clowney, veteran tackle J.T. Surratt is vastly underrated, and both the Dixon brothers (end Gerald and tackle Gerald Jr.) look like they could be poised for breakout seasons.

"We're going to show some different things, and we still have a lot of people who are going to step up and make plays," Surratt said. "Even though we've lost a lot of talent, we're not going to drop off and will be just as good, if not better, than we were last year."

STANFORD, Calif. -- When Stanford needed to replace tailback Stepfan Taylor a year ago, Cardinal coach David Shaw promised a rotation of several backs. Once the season began, however, senior Tyler Gaffney refused to let any other backs in the huddle. Gaffney rushed for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns on 330 carries, the second-most in Stanford history.

He is gone now, drafted by Carolina in the sixth round, and on the topic of replacing Gaffney, Shaw is trying to keep a straight face.

"I'll say the same thing I said last year," Shaw said with a smile, "which ended up not being true. I think we've got a good group. We've got a good committee."

This time, he appears to mean it. The Stanford backfield is filled with upperclassmen whose potential has yet to be realized. Redshirt junior Remound Wright had been the favorite to replace Gaffney, but Shaw suspended Wright for disciplinary reasons and he missed the last two weeks of spring practice.

That provided more opportunities for his classmate Kelsey Young, who has played some receiver and returned kicks in the last two years. Young uses speed and quickness to do a little bit of everything. Redshirt senior Ricky Seale may be even quicker than he is.

Then there's junior Barry Sanders, son and namesake of a Pro Football Hall of Fame tailback. Sanders "has a once-a-day 'Wow!' play," Shaw said. But that hasn't been enough to get the 5-10, 192-pound Sanders onto the field with any regularity. His blocking, an integral part of a tailback's job at Stanford, has lagged behind. But Shaw said he is ready, and so are the other three.

What about the old rule, modified here, that if you have four running backs you really don't have any?

"I understand where that phrase comes from," Shaw said, "but we're in a different world now. We're in a world of specialists, guys that play roles on good teams."

It's a world without Gaffney or Taylor, and Shaw isn't concerned at all.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Everywhere you look on the Texas A&M campus, you see signs of the Aggies' unexpected success in their first two seasons in the SEC. There's an expanding stadium, new football facility and bigger weight room.

It seems the Aggies are spending their SEC riches as soon as they earn it.

"It's crazy," Aggies offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi said. "I bet some of the guys who left and came back here wouldn't even recognize it. Every time you turn on ESPN, you hear about A&M in some fashion. Before I came here, I'd never even heard of A&M."

But after quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, bolted for the NFL draft after his sophomore season, the Aggies are now out to prove they're more than a one-man show. Heading into their third season in the SEC, they're facing the same big question of their inaugural campaign in the sport's most rugged league: Who's going to play quarterback?

Either sophomore Kenny Hill or touted freshman Kyle Allen will be under center in the Aug. 28 opener at South Carolina. A three-man competition was reduced to two after senior Matt Joeckel transferred to TCU last month.

Hill, the son of former major league pitcher Ken Hill, completed 16 of 22 passes in four games as a freshman in 2013. He missed much of spring practice after he was indefinitely suspended in late March following his arrest on public intoxication. Allen, from Scottsdale, Arizona, enrolled in classes at Texas A&M in January after graduating early from high school.

"I think one of those guys is going to surprise the nation next year -- the same way Johnny did," Ogbuehi said.

Manziel's replacement probably won't have to do as much as he did. The Aggies bring back an embarrassment of skill players, including tailbacks Tra Carson, Brandon Williams and Trey Williams.

And as far as Manziel's replacement, nobody really knew who Johnny Football was until he took the field.

"We don't expect there to be another Johnny Football," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We expect it to be whoever his name is. There's never been one like him and there probably won't be one after him. When we got here, nobody really knew who he was or what he was capable of."

LOS ANGELES -- If you want to know why UCLA football suffered a long, debilitating case of mediocrity, consider that from 1999 until last year, the Bruins did not have a single offensive lineman drafted.

Or that guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, chosen by the Houston Texans with the first pick of the second round in the NFL draft, is the first Bruins offensive lineman to be drafted that high since Jonathan Ogden in 1996. That's so long ago that Ogden has a bust in Canton -- the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted him last year.

When Jim Mora arrived after the 2011 season, he began to transform the Bruins into a more physical bunch. UCLA won the Pac-12 South in 2012 and went 10-3 last season.

"We're big and physical and athletic up front on both sides," Mora said, "and that's where it always starts in football. Always. I believe that. I think most coaches do."

Perhaps so, but it was not until Mora arrived with strength coach Sal Alosi that the Bruins put that belief into action. The action included signing 14 offensive linemen in Mora's first two recruiting classes.

Injuries forced three freshmen onto the field last season, and the Bruins paid a price for it: Stanford limited UCLA to 266 yards and sacked quarterback Brett Hundley four times in a 24-10 victory. But a year later, tackle Caleb Benenoch, guard Alex Redmond and center Scott Quessenberry have made the offensive front a strength, even with the departure of Su'a-Filo.

Mora, knowing that he could trust his line to protect Hundley, installed a package of plays in the spring in which Hundley takes the snap under center. Mora knows the package will be a nice addition on Hundley's résumé for the 2015 NFL draft. But that's not why he introduced the package.

"We want to work out a little more power run game and play-action pass from under center," Mora said. ""... The motivation was to continue to grow our offense and expand. It's certainly going to benefit Brett. It's going to benefit everybody. It's going to benefit our centers, our guards."

And they, in turn, will benefit UCLA.

MADISON, Wis. - Wisconsin breeds 1,000-yard rushers at a rate similar to the cheese that's produced in these parts.

But the centerpiece of the Badgers' backfield in 2014 just may end up being the most dynamic runner of them all.

Go ahead and put Melvin Gordon on the Heisman Trophy short list right now. He returns for his redshirt junior season after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. He averaged 7.8 yards per carry and had four runs of 60 yards or more and three of 70 yards or more, both tops in the country.

"I didn't come back because I wanted to win the Heisman," Gordon said. "I came back because there are still things we want to do as a team, and I know I can be a more complete player, a player that helps everybody else raise their level.

"We've won the Big Ten championship and gotten to Rose Bowls, but we haven't won any of them. It gets to a point where you've had enough. You've got to win the big games, and the way you do that is by making enough big plays throughout the season. Coach [Gary] Andersen has been focusing on that, doing the little things and all the details.

"We're going all out on that and are ready to take that next step."

Gordon flashed the same explosive speed this spring that made him one of the top breakaway threats in college football last season. But he also looks sturdier than ever and wants to play at 212 pounds this season after playing at 207 a year ago. The good thing is that he won't have to go it alone. Similar to the way he did with James White a year ago (when they combined for 3,053 yards), he'll share backfield duties with talented sophomore Corey Clement. They'll be running behind an offensive line that returns four of five starters.

"Corey is a power back. I am at times, too," Gordon said. "But Corey is really strong. That's his game. He's physical. He loosens them up, and then I come in and break them down and vice versa."

-- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23782804. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23782804. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23782804. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23782804.
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...