AS WE STARE DOWN THE BARREL OF JULY. It's tough this time of year to fill an entire post of Hawkeye link content. So, as we say in the blog linking business (we, meaning me and some other guy), time for some filler content. What better way to fill time than to publish an early Top 20? Here we go:
1. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES The defending national champs have the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at quarterback along with six other starters returning on offense. Winston and company had the #6 ranked offense (total offense) and #2 ranked scoring offense just behind Baylor last year. This season they open with a marquee game against Oklahoma State, a team hit by APR sanctions this off-season and losing a day of practice per week.
In week three, FSU hosts Clemson, a fringe Top 20 team and conference rival. The Seminoles will have a possible Top 10 match-up down the road with Notre Dame visiting Tallahassee and tough in-state games at Miami and home against Florida to close the regular season. The schedule isn't overly tough but watch out for a trip up on the road at Syracuse or Louisville (Thursday, October 30th, 6:30 PM CT).
2. OKLAHOMA SOONERS They were the second hottest team to close out the 2013 season with four wins in a row including the crazy Bedlam game and a victory over an emotionally defeated Alabama team in the Sugar Bowl. The Sooner offense was disappointing in 2013 (#52 nationally in total offense) as Bob Stoops looked for consistent quarterback play from Trevor Knight and Blake Bell. Knight, then a freshman, played poorly to open the season and then an suffered injury. He'd figure it out and took the starting role during the Sooner four game win streak to close the season and had his best performance against Alabama (32-44 348 yards 4 TDs 1 INT).
Oklahoma returns nine starters on a defense that finished ranked 20th nationally last year. Their schedule sets up nicely with the first test a home game against Tennessee in September. They get Kansas State and Baylor at home this season with road trips to West Virginia, Iowa State, TCU and Texas Tech.
3. OREGON DUCKS The PAC-12 could be the best conference in the nation in 2014. The best team in the best conference is the Oregon Ducks. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is perhaps the top candidate to beat Jameis Winston for the Heisman this December. He's only a junior and if he sticks around at Oregon he could end up the all-time leader in total offense, passing yards, completions, touchdowns, passing efficiency and completion percentage. Oregon returns nine starters on an offense that finished ranked #2 nationally in total offense last year.
They'll be tested in week two when 2013 Big Ten and Rose Bowl Champion Michigan State comes to Autzen. It's a Top 10 match-up of offense versus defense and possibly college football's best game of September. They'll visit UCLA on October 11th, another possible match-up of two Top 10 teams. They host Washington and Stanford this year and don't have Arizona, Arizona State or USC on the schedule.
4. AUBURN TIGERS The Tigers had a magical run last year that started with tight wins against Mississippi State and Ole Miss. They suffered a September loss to LSU but never looked back from there. Their run ended with a final drive and loss to Florida State in the BCS National Championship game. From (3-9) in 2012 to (12-2) in 2013 under the direction of Gus Malzahn makes this guy a believer.
The Tigers return 14 starters on both sides of the ball including quarterback Nick Marshall. Their schedule does them no favors as they open against SEC opponent Arkansas in week one August 30th. They'll also take a trip to Manhattan, Kansas, to take on Jake Waters and Kansas State September 18th. Auburn will host LSU, South Caolina and Texas A&M this year but have to travel to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama. They'll need another miraculous season to repeat last year's success as that schedule is brutal.
5. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS If the PAC-12 is the nation's best conference, the Big Ten could be second (although SEC fans will have a problem with that). Michigan State is the reigning Big Ten champ and best team heading into 2014. They return their quarterback Connor Cook and a potential top 10 draft pick on defense in Shilique Calhoun. After the Spartan offense sputtered early in 2013 Cook emerged after a bye week and thrashed Iowa for 277 yards. Cook closed the year with back-to-back 300 yard games against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
MSU's identity is their defense and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi returns to direct the Spartans after his name circulated in the off-season for several head coaching positions. Michigan State returns only four starters on defense and they'll get tested in week two when they visit Oregon. Sparty hosts Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State this year. They'll face Purdue, Indiana, Maryland and Penn State on the road. An early season loss at Oregon isn't a killer for their playoff hopes. They'll have to survive that September match-up with Nebraska and then their toughest game is a November night game against the Buckeyes.
6. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE If not for the greatest play in college football history, the Tide might have had a shot at another National Title against Florida State instead of Auburn. Instead, Alabama lost their last two games to end 2013. They also lost eight players from the 2013 team to the NFL Draft but Bama reloads.
They'll get a chance to end the losing streak in week one in the Georgia Dome against West Virginia. Nick Saban will need to settle on a quarterback and former Florida State (backup to Jameis Winston) Jacob Coker could be that guy. If Coker is the QB everyone believes he is, the Tide may be the best in the SEC. Their SEC schedule isn't as tough as their brethren in the West. They get Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn at home while the road trips are to Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU.
7. BAYLOR BEARS You like points? Baylor should be back putting them on the board again in 2014. The Bears return only nine starters on both sides but quarterback Bryce Petty is one of them.
They'll get the chance to again pad the stats in September as they face SMU, Nothwestern State, Buffalo and Iowa State. We'll know if the Bears are for real when they head to Texas on Saturday, October 4th. They also travel to Oklahoma on November 8th and close the season with Kansas State at home.
8. UCLA BRUINS Jim Mora Jr. has things happening in Hollywood. The Bruins won five of their last six games to close out 2013 including a 42-14 thumping of Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl. If Oregon falters UCLA could be the favorite in the PAC-12. They'll return 16 starters, eight on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Brett Hundley is back and will challenge Marcus Mariota for PAC-12 player of the year.
UCLA begins with a trip across the country to face Virginia to open the season and then it's a battle with Texas in mid-September. They close the first month of the season with their PAC-12 opener, a Saturday night date with Arizona State in the desert. They'll get Oregon, Arizona, USC and Stanford at home. Their road trips are to Cal, Colorado and Washington.
9. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES The Buckeyes ride a two game losing streak to start 2014. That losing streak came after Urban Meyer won his first 24 games as OSU's coach. Ohio State has 12 returning starters on both sides of the ball including returning Big Ten offensive player of the year Braxton Miller. They'll also have the best defensive line in the league that has Randy Gregory, Carl Davis and Shilique Calhoun. Joey Bosa is a big time player.
The Buckeye defense will be tested with option offense Navy but it's the opener and plenty of time to prepare. Things don't get tough for the Buckeyes until a road trip to Maryland in October and a later date at Penn State. An in-state meeting with Cincinnati could be interesting. The Big Ten East title will likely come down to the OSU-MSU showdown in November. Michigan could play spoiler in their annual rivalry game to close the regular season too.
10. NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH Welcome back Everett Golson. The Irish offense finished 2013 ranked #67 on total offense. Golson, and his dual-threat ability will be a boost to Brian Kelly and his offense. The Irish return only 11 starters but Golson is the key to their season.
It's never an easy slate for the Irish. They get their first test this year with Rice, a bowl team in 2013. They'll then play Michigan in what could be the final time for that rivalry. There's Purdue and then things get nasty. Up and comer Syracuse is on the schedule and at Metlife Stadium. Then, it's Stanford, North Carolina and Florida State before a bye week. Then along comes Navy, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC. Both ASU and USC are West Coast trips for the Irish. Good luck, you'll need it.
11. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS The Ol' Ballcoach loses Connor Shaw but has running back Mike Davis back in the backfield. If Spurrier goes with Dylan Thompson at QB he can lean on his run game and defense until he's comfortable. He has 14 starters returning including preseason all-SEC offensive guard AJ Cann.
If South Carolina is a contender will be determined in the season's first three weeks.They open the season with Texas A&M and host Georgia two weeks later. A home date with Missouri closes out a rough September. There's roadies to Kentucky, Auburn, Florida and Clemson.
12. ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS ASU got hot late last year winning five in a row including a wild one at the Rose Bowl versus UCLA. Then came Stanford and the PAC-12 title game. Stanford rolled them and the Devils dropped their bowl game versus Texas Tech and enter 2014 with a two game losing streak.
They return only 10 starters but Todd Graham returns for his third season at ASU. They'll start the year with cupcakes until they meet UCLA and USC in back-to-back games in late September/early October. After a bye it's Stanford in the desert. They'll also host Notre Dame and head to Tuscon for the annual rivalry game with 'Zona.
13. WISCONSIN BADGERS Perhaps the Badger season rides on Joel Stave's shoulder. He missed most of spring and that's a concern. The Badgers dropped their last two to end 2013 and open 2014 with a neutral site game against LSU. They also return only nine starters including three on defense.
They do return Melvin Gordon, perhaps the nation's best running back. They also have a cakewalk of a schedule following the LSU opener. A roadie to Northwestern could prove tricky but the real tests are at the end of the slate with Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
14. STANFORD CARDINAL The reigning PAC-12 champs are in line for another run. The Cardinal are much like Michigan State. Their identity is their defense. In 2013, they finished ranked 69th nationally in total offense and 16th in total defense. The defensive number is impressive as they faced some of the nation's best offenses in UCLA, Oregon, Washington State, Cal and Arizona State (twice).
They'll return only 11 starters from last year's Rose Bowl team. Kevin Hogan is back at quarterback and he'll need to erase his last performance against Michigan State from his memory.
Stanford gets USC in a possible Top 25 match-up in week two on September 6th. They visit Notre Dame in early October and Arizona State two weeks later. There's also road trips to Oregon and UCLA in November. They'll host Washington State, Oregon State and Utah. The scheduling gods did them no favors, yikes!
15. GEORGIA BULLDOGS If Melvin Gordon or T.J. Yeldon aren't the best running back, Todd Gurley is. He'll carry a Bulldog offense that returns only five starters from the 2013 squad. Georgia gets back 10 starters on defense and that will be their strength this season. Look for ball control offense and stifling defense, a change from the pass-happy offense led by Aaron Murray.
Georgia's schedule is no joke. They open with Clemson at home and after an open date head to South Carolina. They play at Missouri, Arkansas and Kentucky while hosting Florida and Auburn at home.
16. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA TROJANS The Steve Sarkisian era begins at USC. He'll have 14 starters back from a team that finished 2013 (10-4) including a bowl win over Fresno State. The sanctions handed down in 2010 are over but the roster is still short due to the previous recruiting limitations. There still could be depth issues but the Trojans are building their way back.
They will open the season with Fresno at the Coliseum. They then hit the road to take on Stanford and Boston College. They get ASU and Notre Dame at home this year with road trips to Washington State and Arizona.
17. LSU TIGERS The Tigers have to replace quarterback Zach Mettenberger and star receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham. The Tigers went with freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings against Iowa in the Outback Bowl and he got the win but he may not be the answer in 2014. True Freshman phenom Brandon Harris impressed in spring ball and might be the starter on opening day against Wisconsin.
After a date with the Badgers it doesn't get tough again for the Tigers until back-to-back road trips to Auburn and Florida to start October. The Tigers host Kentucky, Ole Miss and Alabama before heading to Arkansas and closing at Texas A&M.
18. IOWA HAWKEYES Like MSU, OSU and Wisconsin, Iowa also returns their starting quarterback (Jake Rudock) along with seven additional starters on offense. Iowa has 90% of its offensive production back but the graduation losses will hit the defensive back seven pretty hard.
We've talked about Iowa's schedule here and here.
19. CENTRAL FLORIDA They were a surprise team last season finishing (12-1), going undefeated in AAC play and beating Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl. There's 15 starters returning as the Knights gear up for a possible playoff run.
For a playoff berth, UCF has to win all their games and in convincing fashion. They open the season with Penn State and have out of conference contests with Missouri and BYU. Those are the toughest games on their schedule as they take on Temple, UCONN, Tulsa and the like in conference play.
20. OLE MISS REBELS The baby Rebels are growing up. Hugh Freeze landed a monster recruiting class in 2013 and after several freshmen got their feet wet in 2013 they're ready to make Ole Miss contenders. They still could be a year away but Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell are big time players.
Ole Miss managed to finish 2013 (8-5) despite playing all that young talent. They'll open 2014 with Boise State at the Georgia Dome Thursday, August 28th on the national stage on ESPN. It's not until October 4th when they face Alabama they'll be truly tested again. They have road trips to Texas A&M and LSU in October and get Auburn and Mississippi State at home in November.