PROGRAMS ON THE RISE
(in alphabetical order)
2013 RECORD: 4-8, 3-5 SEC
Why the optimism: Things can’t possibly get any worse in Gainesville, can they? The Gators took a hit with injuries last season, but QB Jeff Driskell is back and ready to atone for the school’s first losing season since 1979. Will Muschamp’s seat is getting hotter, but a re-energized offense could go a long way to getting his team back on track.
2013 RECORD: 8-5, 5-4 Big 12
Why the optimism: The Wildcats return only four starters on defense and six on offense, but they are picked to finish third in the conference behind the big guns — Oklahoma and Baylor. They struggled to a 2-4 start, losing only once in the second half of the season to OU. They could use that momentum to lay the proper groundwork for another solid season.
2013 RECORD: 8-5, 5-3 SEC
Why the optimism: The Rebels are coming off 7-6 and 8-5 seasons — which includes two bowl wins — under coach Hugh Freeze and have one of the more accomplished quarterbacks in the conference in Bo Wallace, who had 24 total touchdowns last season. Freeze has had two solid recruiting years and certainly has the program pointing in the right direction.
2013 RECORD: 4-8, 2-7 Big 12
Why the optimism: Since taking over in 2001, Gary Patterson hasn’t had to endure a lot of mediocrity. He suffered only one losing season until last year, when a pair of agonizing three-point losses to Oklahoma and Baylor were the difference in a 6-6 mark. He should get things going again this season with a defense that returns most of its starters from a year ago.
2013 RECORD: 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12
Why the optimism: Jimmy Mora has brought a healthy dose of respectability back to the program with 9-5 and 10-3 seasons in his two years and there’s an even better chance to take a bigger leap with a lofty No. 7 ranking in the AP preseason poll. Quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Myles Jack are good starting points on both sides of the ball.
NEWBIES TO WATCH
True freshmen are making more of an impact than ever before as all LSU fans know, so here are five newcomers to keep an eye on this season (in alphabetical order):
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
How he fits in: Fournette, the No. 1 recruit in the nation last winter, certainly has the size and speed to offset the departure of Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue to the NFL — especially if he gets enough opportunities in Les Miles’ backfield-by-committee approach.
Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
How he fits in: The word “freak” is thrown around when Garrett’s name is mentioned and that’s a good thing for the Aggies, who didn’t have much of a pass rush in 2013. Garrett, the nation’s top defensive end should help after collecting 20.5 sacks last season.
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
How he fits in: Even though he may not crack the starting lineup for the season opener because he’s battling a senior, McMillan should get the nod before the leaves start to fall in Columbus. The hard-hitting Georgian was the high school Butkus Award winner in 2013.
Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
How he fits in: Peppers, who has 4.4 speed, is already a hot item for the Wolverines defense, earning a starting spot at cornerback and showing the ability to slide inside in the nickel package. He’ll also shown enough already to be the starting punt returner.
Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
How he fits in: Quite nicely, thank you. The West Monroe High School graduate was the top-rated offensive lineman in the 2014 recruiting class. He enrolled early and won the starting job at left tackle and will replace Cyrus Kouandjio, who left early for the NFL.
HOT R É SUM É S
(in alphabetical order)
Matt Campbell, Toledo
RECORD: 17-9 in two seasons at Toledo
Why the praise: Never heard of him? If you haven’t, you will soon; Campbell, 35, is a rising star with two seasons (he won nine games in his debut in 2012) under his belt. The Rockets are favored to win the MAC this fall.
The verdict: It might take a little more time to become a household name, but you can bet he’s already on the radar of some big-time programs for the future. Winning a conference title or two would accelerate the process.
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State
RECORD: 20-6 in two seasons at FSU; 21-6 overall
Why the praise: It’s not like the cupboard was bare when he arrived in 2012, but DeRuyter is gaining a lot of traction as a hot commodity in the head coach ranks after leading the Bulldogs to back-to-back Mountain West titles.
The verdict: DeRuyter is flourishing after finally getting his first crack at a head coaching job in 2012 at the age of 49. A California native, he’s right at home — especially with a contract extension through the 2018 season.
Dave Doeren, North Carolina State
RECORD: 3-9 in one season at N.C. State; 26-13 overall
Why the praise: Don’t let the record last season fool you, Doeren had only eight starters back for his debut in Raleigh. He’s an up-and-comer who led Northern Illinois to a 23-4 record and an Orange Bowl bid before leaving there.
The verdict: This season should be a better indicator of his coaching ability. He has Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett at QB, one of the reasons the Wolfpack is a fashionable pick to be the most improved team in the ACC.
Mark Hudspeth, UL-Lafayette
RECORD: 27-12 in three seasons at UL-Lafayette; 93-33 overall
Why the praise: What’s not to like about a coach that has led his team to three consecutive bowl wins in his first three seasons? Hudspeth seems content in Lafayette, but if the right school came calling. … Stay tuned.
The verdict: The right school could be Mississippi State, one of Hudspeth’s assistant coaching stops. If Dan Mullen takes a step back after a school-record four consecutive bowl games, Hudspeth could be the guy.
Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech
RECORD: 8-5 in one season at Texas Tech
Why the praise: In his first season as a head coach, the 34-year-old former QB stamped himself as a star in the making. Tech, which was 8-5 with a bowl win, ranked second in passing offense and eighth in total yards in the FBS.
The verdict: Armed with a five-year contract that pays him $2.1 million a season, Kingsbury isn’t likely to leave his alma mater anytime soon. But he will command a lot of attention from the big schools if he stays on course.