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College Football 2014 Season Preview: 10 Big Questions That Need Answers

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Our long national nightmare is almost over, and we are down to just a few more days until college football returns on August 28. Here are some of the burning issues we can’t wait to see play out in the coming weeks.

Can Anyone Catch the Seminoles?

While Florida State’s roster and schedule certainly set up nicely for a title run, the expansion to a four-team playoff this year will increase the pool of potential spoilers in the postseason, and several teams have hopes of dethroning the champs. After all, the preseason No. 1 team has finished ranked seventh or lower in five of the last six years.

Alabama is a perennial favorite and, despite ending last season on a sour note (more on that in a moment) and replacing a four-year-starting quarterback, the Crimson Tide roster will once again be loaded with NFL-caliber talent. Although they’ll certainly be tested in the SEC, no one should be surprised to see Alabama in the hunt.

Speaking of Alabama, Oklahoma suddenly became a hot commodity after torching Alabama’s defense for 45 points and 429 yards in the Sugar Bowl. However, Sooners quarterback Trevor Knight had a career game (348 yards and 4 touchdowns) and it is unlikely he’ll duplicate those numbers week in and week out. While OU’s defense should be stout, the suspension of RB Joe Mixon, the Sooners’ top recruit, could put even more weight on Knight’s shoulders.

Out west, the Pac-12 is quickly solidifying itself as the nation’s second-best conference, and it is quite likely that a showdown between No. 3 Oregon and No. 7 UCLA could well determine a spot in the playoff. Michigan State boasted the nation’s most ferocious defense a year ago and, if they can get past an early-season matchup at No. 3 Oregon, the Spartans could be poised for a run with their toughest Big Ten contests all coming at home. And with the core of a young team returning, don’t count out No. 6 Auburn, who came within a last-minute Florida State drive of taking home the title last year.

If Not Winston, Then Who?

It’s not often we see such high expectations placed on a college sophomore, but Winston’s record-setting Heisman campaign as a redshirt freshman has set the bar at a whole new level. While off-field issues continue to follow him, Winston could put all those in the rearview mirror with another dominating performance this year.

If Winston can’t overcome the Heisman jinx, there are a number of players out there who could come out of the woodwork to carry away the trophy. With Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller reportedly out for the year with a shoulder injury, Oregon signal caller Marcus Mariota is the next logical choice, as he has already shown an ability to put up big numbers, carry his team and, most importantly, keep winning. Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty will put up big numbers again and, if the Bears can make another run at a Big 12 title, he could find his way to New York.

Although the award has been stacked in favor of quarterbacks in recent years, a number of solid running backs could work their way into the mix. If fully recovered from a variety of injuries that slowed him last year, Georgia’s Todd Gurley is arguably the top back in the nation and should have plenty of carries with the Bulldogs breaking in a new quarterback. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah will continue to show why power-running games still rule the Big Ten. And if history has taught us anything, you can never count out an Alabama running back, so keep T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry on your watch list.

When Should You Cancel Your Plans?

Keep your schedule clear on November 8. That’s the day you’re going to want to be parked in front of the television, as some of the biggest games of the year could shake up the playoff chase. Two key SEC West games will determine the frontrunner to get to the conference title game as No. 2 Alabama takes on No. 13 LSU, and No. 21 Texas A&M travels to No. 6 Auburn. The losers of those games could be out of title contention.

Meanwhile, No. 10 Baylor will travel to No. 4 Oklahoma with the Big 12 title in the balance. No. 25 Washington will host No. 7 UCLA in a key Pac-12 matchup. And in the nationally televised nightcap, No. 5 Ohio State will travel to East Lansing for a key Big Ten matchup against No. 8 Michigan State. So make sure you’ve got extra drinks in the cooler and extra batteries for the remote.

Who Will Be Under the Most Pressure?

Forget coaches on the hot seat or underperforming players. This season, the most scrutinized people in college football will be a group that won’t ever set foot on the field. With the four-team college playoff beginning this year, much of the attention will be focused squarely on the 13 members of selection committee that will determine which four teams get a shot at the title. If you think the members of the NCAA basketball selection committee have a tough job picking 68 teams, just imagine what these committee members will hear from fans of the team that comes in fifth. Those committee members are already hoping for four undefeated conference champions to make their jobs a lot easier.

How Does Texas A&M Fare in the Post-Manziel Era?

Texas A&M was expected to struggle in its first couple years competing in the SEC. But those difficulties never materialized, thanks to Johnny Football leading the Aggies to 20 wins and two bowl wins (not to mention the Heisman Trophy). But now the big question becomes how will Texas A&M fare without Manziel’s ability to take over a game when needed?

There’s no question that the future appears bright in College Station—they have locked up one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, head coach Kevin Sumlin has been signed to a six-year extension and the university has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrades and renovations at Kyle Field. But not only must A&M replace Manziel, but also must find some answers to improve a defense that ranked 111th nationally last season. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Johnny Manziel’s importance to that team. The Aggies’ success this year will have to be much more team-based instead of relying on one outstanding player.

Can Texas Rebound?

It seems like we’ve been asking this question for years now. But this year it takes on added importance as new coach Charlie Strong takes over a proud program that has fallen on hard times. While Strong may ultimately be successful, there could be some growing pains this year as he has cleaned house in the Longhorns program. Five players have been dismissed from the team for various reasons and three more have been suspended for at least one game. While Texas will almost certainly be a more disciplined team this year, will that be enough to get past a brutal first half of the season that includes matchups against BYU, No. 7 UCLA, No. 10 Baylor and No. 4 Oklahoma?

Can Alabama Find Its Mojo?

It’s been a long time since the words “Alabama” and “two-game losing streak” have been in the same sentence. But that’s exactly where the Crimson Tide finds itself coming into 2014. As if losing to archrival Auburn wasn’t bad enough on its own, Alabama’s loss came on arguably the most exciting play in college football history, one they’ve had to watch over and over in replays for months now. Then Nick Saban’s crew looked lost and unmotivated in a 45-31 Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. Now Saban’s aura of invulnerability has been tarnished a bit and the Alabama faithful are looking for answers.

The Crimson Tide will be breaking in a new quarterback after the departure of four-year starter A.J. McCarrron. And the defense that was so dominant for most of the season returns just four starters. But an offensive line loaded with talent and probably the best running-back stable in the nation should allow Alabama to overcome any adjustments and keep theme in the thick of the title hunt.

Who Could Be This Year’s Cinderella?

One noticeable omission from the preseason Top 25 was any team from a non-power conference. We’ve gotten so used to seeing teams like Boise State and Northern Illinois make a run, we almost expect to see at least one of them crack the rankings. But the initial Associated Press poll had no teams from outside the five “power conferences.”

With Louisville now part of the ACC and Chris Peterson no longer in Boise, it’s tough finding much love for the little guys. But that’s not to say no one can crash the party. Utah State’s record-setting quarterback Chuckie Keeton is back from a torn ACL and is the preseason Mountain West Player of the Year. He’ll have a chance to get the Aggies on the radar with a season-opening matchup at Tennessee. Central Florida must replace QB Blake Bortles, but returns many starters from last year’s Fiesta Bowl championship team, including ten from a defense that ranked 11th in scoring defense during the regular season. And haven’t we all learned better than to count out Boise State?

What’s Going On at Notre Dame?

In 2012, we thought that Brian Kelly had finally brought Notre Dame back among the nation’s elite football programs. But that illusion all came crashing down in just a few weeks’ time. First came the Manti Te’o fake-girlfriend drama. Then the Irish were demolished, 42-14, by Alabama in the national title game. Then starting quarterback Everett Golson was suspended for 2013 after allegations of academic misconduct. In his absence, Notre Dame did win nine games, but were not impressive and the Irish faithful were looking toward 2014 when Golson would be back to lead the squad.

What they didn’t count on was an ongoing academic misconduct scandal further decimating the team. Last week, four Irish players—including three starters—were sidelined pending a university investigation into potential academic fraud. The four players are still enrolled but may not practice or play while the investigation is ongoing. Barring a sudden reversal by university officials, Kelly’s turnaround of the Fighting Irish may have hit another speed bump.

Who Is the New Coach to Watch?

Coaching turnover in college football is frequent and often expected, but there are plenty of intriguing story lines this season. We’ve already touched on Charlie Strong’s rebuilding project at Texas, but he’s far from the only new face taking over a powerhouse school. After turning down a number of college and NFL jobs, Steve Sarkisian came back to USC and takes over a program bursting with talent. Boise State’s Chris Peterson, no stranger to turning down offers himself, finally made the jump to a power conference by taking Sarkisian’s place at Washington. He was no stranger to success in Boise, and Huskies fans are hoping he can work the same magic in Seattle.

Probably the most intriguing face is a familiar one, as Bobby Petrino returns to Louisville. Petrino helped make the Cardinal program what it is and, after struggling through some off-field personal scandals, has proven you can go home again. James Franklin took Vanderbilt to three straight bowl games for the first time in school history, but now faces a unique challenge in restoring a Penn State team still recovering from the post-Sandusky NCAA sanctions. And while Craig Bohl might not be a household name yet, it will be interesting to see what he can do after winning three straight FCS titles with North Dakota State and now moving on to a Wyoming program that hasn’t won more than eight games since 1996.

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