Mark HelfrichSteve Dykes/Getty ImagesMark Helfrich and the Oregon Ducks could be in danger of falling back to the pack in the Pac-12.

BRISTOL, Conn. -- When we compiled our Future Power Rankings earlier in July, the Oregon Ducks -- a very popular playoff pick in 2014 -- came in at just 13th.

Seem low for such a big college football brand? A lot of the skepticism surrounding the Ducks' near term prospects can be traced back to the uncertainty in the transition from Chip Kelly to second-year head coach Mark Helfrich.

“I don’t think there’s a close No. 2 when it comes to the pressure to win right now,” FPR panelist Brock Huard said. “That’s not a hot-seat conversation. It’s a reality of where their program is, to the heights that Chip Kelly took it. You kind of have to win now. Or else.”

The Ducks should win now. A quick survey of the depth chart shows it’s a veteran roster. In addition to Heisman contender Marcus Mariota at QB, both lines have experienced starters. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is an All-American returning at CB.

Oregon’s push to remain sustainable leads my takeaways from last week’s Pac-12 and Big 12’s car wash stops at ESPN HQ.

I asked Helfrich on Friday about the idea of win-or-else.
Leonard FournetteMiller Safrit/ESPNFreshman Leonard Fournette is drawing athletic comparisons to Michael Jordan and Adrian Peterson.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Who will be CFB’s breakout freshman? Leonard Fournette at LSU? Speedy Noil at A&M? Jabrill Peppers at Michigan? (No redshirts allowed.)

When your coach and teammates are likening your mental determination to Michael Jordan's and your ahead-of-schedule skill set to Adrian Peterson's, chances are you’re equipped for immediate success.

And that makes LSU’s Fournette -- the running back who coaches are telling me is the most physically developed freshman since Peterson -- is the obvious choice for college football’s breakout freshman.

Beyond natural tools, you have to consider Les Miles’ aggressive approach with first-year players. He doesn’t hide them or downplay their potential importance. He talks boldly about them, which could infuse early shots of confidence.

“We don’t say ‘You’re just a freshman,’” Miles told me last week.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Braxton MillerJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller could be in store for a big season at Ohio State.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.


Today’s question: With Johnny Football gone, who is the single most exciting player in the country? Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon? Georgia’s Todd Gurley? Jameis? Braxton?

You have to start with Jameis Winston to answer this one, as anything else would be disingenuous.

“He’s a goofy kid,” an ACC assistant told me, “but the kid can make plays. We couldn’t defend him.”

Winston is the player who rightfully beat out Johnny Manziel for the Heisman Trophy. And he became the must-watch player on par with Manziel from his very first game, a 350-yard, five-TD effort at Pitt on Labor Day night. The Hail Mary just before halftime at Boston College, one of the only half-threats of the season for the Seminoles, cemented him as a player of record. That all happened in September.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Steve SarkisianKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSteve Sarkisian has high expectations going into his first season at USC.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.


Today’s questions: Will the new coaching staff’s familiarity give USC a fighting chance in the Pac-12 race? And how much better is Trojans QB Cody Kessler than he was a year ago?

UCLA is the favorite in the Pac-12 South, and USC’s players and first-year coach acknowledged this week that it’s only logical since the Bruins have won two in a row in the series.

But is there a false perception that the lingering scholarship handicaps could prevent USC from competing in 2014 for the division and maybe even the conference?

Those issues are a hindrance, sure, but they aren’t wholly preventive because of the program’s top-level talent -- and because of the newfound coaching stability.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Saban/ManzielMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDuring his ESPN visit, Nick Saban dished on uptempo play and Johnny Football's NFL prospects.

BRISTOL, Conn. -- Nick Saban likened the debate over uptempo offense and defense in the SEC to “Democrats and Republicans ... who controls the House and Senate.”

After hearing from 12 of the league’s 14 coaches on ESPN’s campus on Monday and Tuesday, it’s clear the argument might be gridlocked.

Ole Miss Rebels coach Hugh Freeze, a proponent of uptempo plays, says it's a means by which his team can offset a deficiency in talent and five-star recruits.

“I don’t want it to be a game to be won on signing day,” Freeze told me Monday, “that your three-deep is better than my three-deep.”

Of course, Saban understands what those teams are trying to do in negating disparity in talent and depth.

But he said those no-huddle offenses “take the defensive coaches out of the game" by making it impossible for them to substitute. Saban also argued that uptempo play doesn’t allow for actual coaching or instruction, something he finds important in the sport.

“I never want to run a system on offense that doesn’t help a player develop,” Saban said, referring to a criticism of “continuous play.”

And Saban again cited safety concerns, saying the added number of plays per game amounts to three additional games per season. The more plays, he reasons, the more chance there is for injury.

So, when does this become something more than an ongoing debate?

Bret Bielema (D-Ark.) said he anticipates some sort of rule change in “the next 2-3 years.”

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

StanfordDavid Madison/Getty ImagesDavid Shaw and the defending Pac-12 champion Cardinal face a brutal schedule in 2014.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Is this the year that Stanford finally takes a step backward?

After four consecutive BCS bowl appearances and back-to-back Pac-12 titles, your first instinct is to say no -- or at least that you’ll believe it when you see it. But I checked in with a resident expert at ESPN Radio, “College GameDay” producer “Stanford” Steve Coughlin, and he thinks there will be some regression for the Cardinal in 2014.

It’s due to the schedule more than anything, he said.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Charlie StrongAP Photo/Eric GayCan Charlie Strong put the Longhorns back in the mix of contenders in his first season?
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.


Today’s question: Could the Texas Longhorns be a surprise contender in the Big 12?

It feels a little early to project the Longhorns as a viable threat in Charlie Strong’s first season. But when you start looking around the league, it doesn’t feel all that far-fetched.

Assuming the Oklahoma Sooners and Baylor Bears are the favorites, that next tier is rather open.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Trevor KnightChuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsHalf of Trevor Knight's touchdowns in 2013 were notched against the Crimson Tide.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.


Today’s question: Is Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight the player who torched Alabama or the guy who never did much against weaker Big 12 defenses?

Half of Knight’s TDs and almost half of his completions came in one game, but that game was against Alabama. So it leaves us wondering: Was the Sugar Bowl the exception or, moving forward, the rule?

Because of minor injuries and uneven performances, Knight couldn’t stay on the field against Big 12 opponents in 2013. Remember that it was an 80-yard TD drive led by Blake Bell that even provided Knight with the Sugar Bowl stage.

Now, Bell is a tight end and Knight is a Heisman contender. Go figure.

Why Knight is that guy ...

Oklahoma’s coaches said last summer that Knight was capable of what you saw against the Tide.

Maybe it just took him that long to find his footing, and now he’ll take off.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Charles Kelly Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State's new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly is fit for the job.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question per day until the kickoff of South Carolina-Texas A&M on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.


Today’s question: Can Florida State’s defense thrive again despite a third defensive coordinator change in as many seasons?

Conventional wisdom suggests that, even if a defense is using the same system, there will be some shift in consistency if the coordinator changes in three consecutive seasons.

I would be very, very surprised, however, if FSU suffered a slip as a result of seeing Mark Stoops go to Kentucky and Jeremy Pruitt leave for Georgia the very next year.

The reasons are twofold: The talent is just that good, yet again. And the new DC, Charles Kelly, is an impressive guy.

In fact, at one point, I was told Kelly’s name could come up for the Georgia DC opening.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Jacob CokerCourtesy of David MorrisThere are high expectations for Jake Coker once he steps on the field for Alabama.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Which of the SEC’s new starting QBs will have the best season?

What I notice first is that, with the possible exception of Missouri’s Maty Mauk, each first-year starting QB in the SEC is inheriting great talent around him.

When in doubt, go to the program with the most talent, and even though he feels like a college football tall tale at this point, Alabama’s Jake Coker absolutely has the best chance to excel.

Even with what little we have seen of him, Coker is already on Mel Kiper Jr.’s radar (tied for fifth among underclassmen QBs for the 2015 NFL draft). The fact that he is 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds does not hurt. Neither will the situation he is entering.

In fact, based on what I hear about his arm strength and knowing the skill around him, it is not that bold of a prediction that this could be his first and only season with the Tide before bolting for the NFL.

Alabama, named Thursday the SEC favorite by media members, is smarting after consecutive losses to end last season. The last time it was doubted to this degree, the Tide responded with consecutive national titles in 2011 and '12.

But it was obviously more settled then at QB. If anything, Nick Saban overplayed the position as a question mark when he addressed reporters at this week’s SEC Media Days.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Connor CookJeff Gross/Getty ImagesAfter getting the starting job midseason in 2013, Connor Cook led the Spartans to a Rose Bowl win.
BEAVERTON, Ore. -- There’s a stereotype for quarterbacks in the middle of the country as two-dimensional scheme guys, robots programmed to run tried-and-true offensive systems by routinely handing the ball off.

But spend a few minutes around Michigan State Spartans QB Connor Cook, and that thought process is quickly short-circuited. While working as a counselor at the recent Elite 11 Finals at Nike HQ, Cook stood on the sidelines, wearing shades and spinning a ball in his hands. Sauntering around the field, the Ohio-born Cook sported the kind of confidence that goes a long way at his position, a measure of poise and swagger that can be infectious in the huddle and lethal on the field.

“Are you sure he’s not from California?” an onlooker asked. A year after helping the Michigan State offense improve its status from liability to relative strength, Cook appears ready for Hollywood. It’s not just the confidence that grabs your eye.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Lane KiffinAP Photo/AL.com, Vasha HuntLane Kiffin is offensive coordinator for a very talented Alabama Crimson Tide team.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: What will we be saying in January about Lane Kiffin’s first season as Alabama’s offensive coordinator? Will this work?

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Bret BielemaWesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBret Bielema has a tough task rebuilding Arkansas in the SEC West.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners – it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.


Wednesday's second question: Will Bret Bielema be able to turn around the Arkansas Razorbacks, or is he fighting a losing battle?

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Kevin SumlinAP Photo/David J. PhillipKevin Sumlin could be tempted in the coming years by open NFL coaching positions.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners – it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.


Wednesday’s first question: How long until Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin goes to the NFL, and who will replace him?

As long as Sumlin is at Texas A&M, or any college, the NFL is always going to be an offseason topic. Even those closest to him believe that Sumlin one day wants to test himself -- and his offensive philosophies -- at the professional level, just as Chip Kelly is doing with the Philadelphia Eagles.

So when is he going? Not anytime soon, is my (informed) opinion.

If he didn’t just leave, for USC or one of the open pro jobs -- particularly the Texans and Vikings -- Sumlin is likely to see through A&M’s $450 million stadium overhaul, as well as the strong recruiting classes the Aggies are signing.

But if he hasn’t made the leap in the next three to five years, I’d be really surprised.

Here are some of the variables to monitor:


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Dak PrescottMichael Chang/Getty ImagesLed by QB Dak Prescott, the Bulldogs could surprise in the SEC in 2014.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners – it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.


Today’s question: How can the Mississippi State Bulldogs become this year’s breakout SEC team?

When I talked last summer with Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, he bemoaned the lack of veteran leadership on his team. He spent about 10 or 15 seconds going through the roster in his mind, trying to think of scholarship seniors who would actually play in 2013. He came up with six, and a list that included at least one specialist.

“It’s something we are missing,” Mullen told me then, referring to the team's lack of an experienced leader.

Things have changed since then. I view Mississippi State as the SEC’s most viable sleeper in 2014. If there is an Auburn or Missouri story in the SEC in 2014, I think it's the Bulldogs.

Here's why they can make a leap this season:

Dak attack

If you haven’t noticed, there aren't many returning QBs in the SEC this year.

Dak Prescott, a name only now becoming familiar to the region (let alone to the country), could very well be the second-team SEC QB behind the Auburn Tigers' Nick Marshall. (Bo Wallace could receive votes

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SPONSORED HEADLINES