by Lisa Horne
A quick look at some national title contenders finds some teams in fairly good shape while others in rebuilding mode. Are the usual suspects in the best position to win it all? Or are some other teams ready to steal their thunder?
The Seminoles have some holes to fill on the offense. Receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are gone. So is running back Davonta Freeman, although Karlos Williams will likely be on some preseason Heisman watch lists. The defense returns fairly intact and head coach Jimbo Fisher has plenty of talent to reload. Overall, Florida State looks good to go.
Remember when the quarterback was a position of concern last season? Nick Marshall allayed all fears and should have another great year. Finding his touch on some mid-range passes would be ideal but overall, Auburn fans should be excited over this team's offense under second-year head coach Gus Malzahn. An improved passing defense and finding a new kicker and punter are top priorities for the Tigers.
No one reloads better than Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban. When quarterback Greg McElroy entered the draft in 2011, A.J. McCarron became the team's game manager. This year the quarterback position is up for grabs. The defense only returns five starters but Saban has been in this position before and has the elite talent to fill in the gaps. The biggest concern is special teams, specifically finding a place kicker.
The Buckeyes' schedule may be problematic for the College Football Playoff selection committee. After a date with Virginia Tech, Ohio State can breeze through August, September and October before facing a tough Michigan State team on the road on November 8. Head coach Urban Meyer must beat his opponents by a large margin in order to impress the committee. If quarterback Braxton Miller stays healthy, this is doable. But the offensive line must be rebuilt and finding a replacement for running back Carlos Hyde is tantamount to the Buckeyes' success.
The Spartans' defense was a thing of beauty last season but this year that unit only returns five starters. Can head coach Mark Dantonio replicate 2013's success? The loss of starters at linebacker and in the secondary are a concern but the usual sore spot for Michigan State is not—quarterback Connor Cook returns. We will know everything we need to know about Michigan State's defense on September 6 when the Spartans travel to Eugene, Oregon to play the Ducks. Circle that date.
With his inaugural year under his belt, head coach Mark Helfrich can now focus on fine tuning his team. Helfrich did a decent job last season but creative play-calling inside red zones was missing in several key games last year, most notably against Stanford. Quarterback Marcus Mariota returns but if the Ducks' defense can't stop power running teams like Stanford, he'll have a repeat of last year's season. This year the entire line must be rebuilt and that is a huge concern.
Every year the Bulldogs are expected to compete for the national (and SEC) title but injuries took their toll in 2013. If they can remain fairly healthy, the Bulldogs should see great success. Replacing quarterback Aaron Murray is priority number one, but the offensive line also has to be rebuilt. The Bulldogs are loaded with offensive weapons: running back Todd Gurley and receivers Michael Bennett, Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley are all back. A shot at the SEC title will be determined by the end of September when Georgia hosts Clemson, travels to South Carolina and hosts Troy and Tennessee. Yikes.
Head coach Jim Mora is on a roll right now—the Bruins landed 5-star quarterback Josh Rosen's (class of 2015) commitment. Quarterback Brett Hundley, a Heisman candidate, is back but his decision-making was marred by an offensive line that gave up 36 sacks last season. The three true freshmen offensive line starters will be more experienced this year so expect the number of sacks allowed to drop. With the offense returning almost intact, the Bruins' offense should be one of the best in the Pac-12. The defense is a different story—who will replace stud linebacker and Lott Trophy winner Anthony Barr?
*photo courtesy of Lisa Horne