Mike Leach (photo courtesy of Lisa Horne)
by Lisa Horne
The best team in the Big Ten is Michigan State.
Wait, what? Where is Ohio State, you ask? Nestled in right below the Michigan State Spartans. Remember, Michigan State beat Ohio State 34-24 to win the 2013 Big Ten crown. The Spartans also beat Pac-12 champion Stanford 24-20 in the Rose Bowl game. While Sparty was ending the season on a high, Brutus Buckeye was hitting a low. After losing to Michigan State, Ohio State dropped another to No. 12 Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Michigan State should be feeling good about 2014. With quarterback Connor Cook and a nasty defense back, Michigan State is the best team in the Big Ten.
The Pac-12 South has caught up to the North
In recent years, pundits have made the Pac-12 all about Oregon and Stanford. Once dominated by USC, the league lost some swag after the NCAA-sanctioned scholarship reductions took their toll on the Trojans. No worries, the UCLA Bruins have been more than happy to pick up the slack. So have the Arizona schools. The South is catching up to the North. Of the Oregon Ducks' four conference losses in the last three years, two were from the South: USC and Arizona. Alas, Stanford's only two conference losses in 2013 came from the South: Utah and USC. The Trojans may also have a great year—unlike his predecessor, new head coach Steve Sarkisian is not a bubble screen aficionado.
Auburn's first loss of the season will occur on September 18
The SEC champion had two close calls last year but came away with fluke wins against Georgia and Alabama. Will the Auburn Tigers need luck to win the SEC again? Maybe, but first they need to worry about Kansas State. When Bill Snyder has a returning veteran quarterback, the purple gets its mojo going on. Quarterback Jake Waters broke Cam Newton's JUCO pass completion percentage record in 2012. Now in his second year at Kansas State, he will be facing a not-so-great Auburn secondary. Last year, Auburn was ranked 13th in the SEC against the pass. This year its secondary is without top cornerback Chris Davis. Hmmm.
TCU will have a better record than Texas
Last year Texas went 8-5 and TCU went 4-8. The tables may turn this year on the Longhorns. A new coach in Charlie Strong and several dismissals (and suspensions) have raised the caution flag. Texas probably needed more disciplined players but the roster is decidedly thinner as a result. Running backs Joe Bergeron and Jalen Overstreet have been dismissed. So have safeties Josh Turner and Chevoski Collins. Texas could be 1-2 after playing North Texas, BYU and UCLA. TCU, on the other hand, could rise to the top of the Big 12 if Oklahoma falters. The Horned Frogs have five conference games at home.
For the first time in nine years, Oklahoma State won't be bowling
Head coach Mike Gundy has been in the situation of having a very inexperienced team before, but 2014's schedule makes his predicament worse. The Cowboys open with BCS Champion Florida State. Two weeks later, they play Texas San Antonio. Last year the Pokes gave up 28 points to the Roadrunners in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys have five conference games on the road at Kansas, TCU, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma. Six wins to get bowl eligible looks like a stretch.
Navy will have the best record among the Independents
Navy—not Notre Dame, BYU nor Army—will have the best record among all four Football Bowl Subdivision Independents. The Midshipmen's schedule is softer than a down pillow. The big boys Navy will face are Ohio State, Rutgers and Notre Dame plus its annual date with Army. The rest of its opponents could end up as naval flotsam and jetsam: Temple, Texas State, Western Kentucky, Air Force, Virginia Military Institute, San Jose State, Georgia Southern and South Alabama. WKU is in its first year in Conference USA. Texas State and South Alabama are in their second year in the Sun Belt and Georgia Southern is in its first. Anchors aweigh.
Tommy Tuberville will be named the AAC's Coach of the Year
The Cincinnati Bearcats have a bye for two consecutive weeks while the rest of America celebrates college football's opening kickoff. With 13 starters returning, Tuberville has some experience with which to work. He also has Notre Dame-transfer Gunner Kiel at quarterback. The Bearcats avoid conference heavyweight Central Florida—how lucky is that?—but do play at Ohio State and at Miami (FL). A likely 10-2 or 9-3 record will probably see Tuberville adding some nice hardware to his mantle.
Florida will win the East
As bad as the Gators were last year, their losses to three elite teams had some close scores: 17-6 at LSU, 23-20 to Georgia in Jacksonville and 19-14 at South Carolina. Last year, South Carolina and Georgia had an opportunity to win the East when Florida bowed out of the picture. Missouri, in its second year in the league, played in the SEC Championship game instead. This is the same Missouri that played in only two Big 12 championships in 15 years. Florida won't be as gracious this year.
The SEC will suffer its first upset on September 13
Last year Central Florida's defense was nationally ranked at No. 29. Expect it to be even better this year with nine defensive starters returning. The offense is missing some key players, most notably quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson. Head coach George O'Leary's Knights must be feeling very confident after beating Baylor 52-42 in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. Will that confidence set the tone for this season? UCF's defense should frustrate the Missouri Tigers, who only return four starters on each side of the ball.
Washington State will upset a Pac-12 favorite
Since 2009, the Washington State Cougars have upset at least one Pac-12 team every year. In 2010 it was Oregon State (-24). Arizona State (-11) fell victim to the Cougs the following year. Washington (-14) lost to Washington State in the 2012 Apple Cup in overtime. Last year Mike Leach's Cougars pulled a two-fer: they beat USC (-15) and Arizona (-11). Say hello to the team no one wants to play. We're looking at you Rutgers, Oregon, Stanford, Arizona, USC, Oregon State, Arizona State, and Washington.