UCLA Headlines Major-Conference Underdogs In 2014
Tuesday represents an annual license to play practical jokes and then blame the recipient for failing to see it coming. Making college football predictions as the calendar turns to April, though, is an even bigger attempt to fool.
For example, we know Alabama is loaded with talent, but how will they do without quarterback AJ McCarron? With no more than a good reputation, are we to trust that summer arrival Jacob Coker, backup to Jameis Winston a season ago, is good enough to keep the Crimson Tide offense at a national championship level? It will be tough to answer that question until we know whether or not Coker will even start in Tuscaloosa in the fall.
As many college-age kids on beach trips this time of year can attest, though, sometimes being foolish is fun, as long as it's contained.
With that spirit, here's one team in every major conference that likely will not be the consensus pick to win the league, but may have a better shot than many anticipate.
ACC: North Carolina
Bryn Renner was supposed to be part of a triumvirate of ACC quarterbacks with NFL potential last season. Instead, he nearly plunged the Tar Heels out of a bowl game before suffering a season-ending injury.
But a funny thing happened. Marquise Williams, a sophomore, led the team to a 4-1 record and a Belk Bowl win against Cincinnati.
Play up the strength of Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris all you want, but replacing Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins isn't easy, especially from the vantage point of spring.
Prior to last season, Florida State often had the ACC's most talented team under coach Jimbo Fisher and unexpectedly found a way to lose at least once. Winston is a program-changer, but he could step on first base funny next week or take a hit to the head in September.
The Seminoles will be heavy favorites to take the ACC again and play a part in the inaugural College Football Playoff. But UNC, much like Duke in 2013, could emerge from a crapshoot Coastal Division if Williams remains a star and the Tar Heels can win a few tough road games.
Big 12: Kansas State
Oklahoma and Baylor will be prohibitive favorites, with others tabbing a rejuvenated Texas or consistent player Oklahoma State as the most likely team to challenge.
The Wildcats' blowout bowl win against Michigan set off alarm bells in Ann Arbor that echoed across the country, disguising the fact that KSU finished the season 6-1 and lost all five of its games by 10 points or less.
This pick isn't as strong as some of the others. If Trevor Knight can replicate his Sugar Bowl performance all season, the Sooners could be poised to ride a strong defense and relatively easy schedule to a conference title. Similarly, Baylor returns Bryce Petty and a bevy of skill players, though the defense, finally decent in 2013, must replace many parts.
KSU's defense is one of the most consistent in the conference, finishing near the top in every category on an annual basis. They could be the bizarre version of Baylor in 2014, as receiver Tyler Lockett emerges as a national star within an offense that may finally provide some support. The Wildcats may get Top 25 consideration from some corners in August, but they're capable of grabbing bigger headlines with a break or two.
Big Ten: Wisconsin
Avoid the Big Ten West at all costs: Check.
Let Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State knock each other around. Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern just aren't as scary as Urban Meyer with a three-year foothold, the defending Rose Bowl champs, Brady Hoke with his head in a guillotine and James Franklin looking to prove his reputation is legitimate.
Linebacker Chris Borland is a big loss on defense, but the return of running back Melvin Gordon may be even more important for the Badgers.
With Bret Bielema looking more and more like a side-show clown at Arkansas, Wisconsin may have gotten lucky to move to coach Gary Andersen. The latter managed a solid first season and has the Badgers in position to follow the same consistent formula that landed them in the Rose Bowl again and again recently.
And boy, does that schedule look nice. Meyer is jealous.
Maybe it's a California thing. For whatever reason, the Bruins' reputation hasn't been about the program the last few years. It's been all about Jim Mora Jr., or running back Johnathan Franklin, or quarterback Brett Hundley, or converted linebacker Anthony Barr, or two-way sensation Myles Jack.
Perhaps it's time we start giving Mora Jr. some credit for building a tremendous program based on solid recruiting, excellent development and overall toughness.
UCLA didn't quite have the horses last season to manage back-to-back road games against Stanford and Oregon, but with Hundley challenging Marcus Mariota as the conference's best Heisman Trophy contender and the Bruins entering Mora's third season, perhaps we should consider them as a legitimate threat to make the College Football Playoff.
Oregon should have a say in the conference equation, but UCLA has an honest case for the second rung as of now.
In a league all about coaches, "The Mad Hatter" is one of the most consistent on a yearly basis in spite of his quirks.
Decisions to enter the NFL Draft early have slammed the Tigers harder than any other program the last two years, but that means coach Les Miles consistently has NFL talent in droves.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's impact last season was stunning. Sure, LSU is losing some wonderful talent at quarterback, receiver and running back, but Cameron's transformation of the offense may become even more evident in 2014 because of it. Miles, who has led LSU to double-digit wins in four consecutive seasons in the most difficult division in college football.
With national pundits focused on Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina, Georgia and even Florida, Miles, the only coach to consistently give Nick Saban trouble to this point, could be the one with the goofy grin in January.