Week 2 make-or-break for Big Ten 

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
11:16
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Connor CookAndrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsAs new conference favorites, can Connor Cook and the Spartans show up for the Big Ten?
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: In light of Ohio State QB Braxton Miller's season-ending injury and the Notre Dame academic investigation, how monumental has Week 2 become for the Big Ten?

An academic investigation in South Bend. Miller's shoulder injury in Columbus. It might seem counterintuitive after adversity hit both Notre Dame and Ohio State in the past few days, but college football’s second week could be even more meaningful as a result.

Just look at the lineup: Michigan State at Oregon, Ohio State vs. Virginia Tech and Michigan at Notre Dame. It would not be an exaggeration to say that each of those games could be make-or-break in terms of the College Football Playoff hopes for those three Big Ten teams.

So let’s take a closer look at how those Big Ten East Division teams have had their chances altered, for better and worse.






Michigan State Spartans

With Ohio State’s playoff chances greatly diminished sans Miller, Michigan State’s game at Oregon takes on even more meaning.
Braxton MillerJamie Sabau/Getty ImagesWhich teams will benefit the most from Braxton Miller's absence?
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: Now that Braxton Miller is out for the 2014 season, which teams instantly rise in the playoff pecking order?

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller reinjured his right, throwing shoulder in practice on Monday, and following an MRI on Tuesday morning, a source told ESPN.com's Brett McMurphy that Miller is out for the season.

A Heisman Trophy candidate expected to lead his team to the inaugural College Football Playoff, Miller's absence will directly affect Ohio State's Big Ten competitors, as well as teams across the country that might have otherwise been behind OSU in the minds of the selection committee.

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Will Jake Coker live up to the hype? 

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
12:08
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Jacob Coker 140806AP Photo/Alabama Media Group, Vasha HuntJake Coker, who didn't arrive at Alabama until May, will beat out Blake Sims.
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 all will be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Will Jake Coker start for Alabama Week 1 against West Virginia?

Based on conversations with several coaches and those who know Nick Saban well, I made Coker my No. 1 breakout player in a file that was published a couple of weeks back.

Am I regretting that now that Saban has said Blake Sims and Coker are essentially in a dead heat in Tide camp? Is it time to alter expectations for Coker?

Heck, no. Here’s why.

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Muschamp among coaches on hot seat 

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17
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Will MuschampSam Greenwood/Getty ImagesWill Muschamp knows he'll need to win more games to hang on to his job at Florida.
Take it from a coach on the hot seat to explain how you get there. And Will Muschamp is without question there as he enters his fourth season as head coach of the Florida Gators.

“You can point to whatever you want to, and we’ve had our fair share of adversity,” Muschamp told me back in the spring, “but we haven’t won enough games. You’ve got to win games. We’ve got to do a better job, as coaches and all of us, and that’s what we’re working to do.”

He’s right. Put whatever you’d like into the front end of the formula, but the back end had better result in victories. Muschamp had 18 wins in his first two seasons with the Gators, but 2013's 4-8 debacle -- even one during which the team was ravaged by injuries -- has cast a dark cloud over his future with the program, even as AD Jeremy Foley continues to voice support.

Muschamp, 22-16 at Florida, leads our look at coaches feeling the heat entering the 2014 season.

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Should playoff include eight teams? 

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
9:56
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2009 Alabama Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIf an SEC champ somehow gets shut out of the playoff, calls to expand to eight teams will follow.
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: Should the playoff have started at eight teams?

Yes, ideally, because the current “playoff” is literally an invitational; the committee ultimately decides who's in. Merit is defined by a 13-person panel.

But as we gravitate toward autonomy and the Power Five is entrenched, the conference that gets left out of the four-team model -- or more than one league, potentially -- will raise hell. And that's why I believe we'll see an expansion to eight teams in the coming years.

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Deontay Greenberry, Jordan BatisteBob Levey/Getty ImagesDeontay Greenberry is one of the young stars expected to lead the Cougars this 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 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 is the best-equipped team from the Group of Five conferences (American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt) to make a New Year’s Six bowl?

I irritated Central Florida fans the other day when I wrote that UCF shouldn’t be ranked, so this should really make the Knights’ day: Houston is going to be the better American Athletic team in 2014.

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Clear preseason Heisman pick: Mariota 

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
9:45
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Marcus MariotaJonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota is back from injury, and ready to pick up where he left off last year.
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 kick off 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 did I arrive at my preseason Heisman top five of Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Braxton Miller, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon?

I’ve been big all summer on Braxton Miller and Ohio State breaking through in big ways. I made a late change in my initial Heisman Watch vote, however, because I’m not fully confident in the health of Miller’s shoulder.

Coach Urban Meyer and OSU insist that the senior QB is fine in his recovery from spring surgery and that the plan all along was to bring him back slowly during camp. But I’ve got to see Miller in action to fully buy into him as the front-runner.

In the meantime, Miller is keeping good company. A strong start could quickly pull him even with the reigning Heisman winner, Jameis Winston, and the majority favorite, Marcus Mariota. Personally, I’ll start the season with Mariota ahead of Winston.

Marcus Mariota | Oregon Ducks | QB


I remain convinced that Mariota would have won the Heisman last year if not for the knee sprain that prevented him from being himself in the loss at Stanford and over the following weeks, which included the stunning rout at Arizona.

When Mariota couldn’t run, Oregon’s offense became more predictable.

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College Football Playoff National Championship TrophyAP Photo/Tony GutierrezA conference champion is guaranteed to be left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.
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: Will there be one or two teams with legitimate cases left out of the playoff?

No one is under the assumption that the new playoff format will suddenly eliminate debate from college football. If it did, I would have been vehemently opposed to the playoff. Conversation -- and consternation, at times -- have driven the sport, and fortunately it’ll continue to be that way. Deserving teams will be left out of the playoff; if it doesn’t happen this year, it will soon enough.

Playoff director Bill Hancock said as much when he met with us last week at ESPN. So did Arkansas AD Jeff Long, the selection committee’s chairman. There will be debate in November, even with the committee’s desire to be transparent in the process. In fact, that openness will invite more discussion.

So who will the debate be about? Which teams will be left behind?

My playoff choices since the first week in January have been Alabama, FSU, Ohio State and UCLA. I’m sticking with them, so they’re in and seeded in that order.

Projected records: Alabama (12-1; SEC champ), FSU (12-1; ACC champ), Ohio State (12-1; Big Ten champ), UCLA (11-2; Pac-12 champ).

That means one league champ doesn’t get in ... and it’s the league that doesn’t play a title game.

Team 1: Let’s say Oklahoma loses at Texas Tech and finishes 11-1, winning the Big 12.

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Notre Dame can spoil FSU's season 

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
12:40
PM ET
Everett GolsonJoel Auerbach/Getty ImagesEverett Golson will lead the most threatening offense the Irish have had in years.
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 team could potentially knock off FSU?

The Florida State Seminoles, according to our Stats & Information department, have a 40 percent chance of going undefeated. The next-closest Power Five undefeated probability is Ohio State -- at 8 percent.

It’s sort of like a batting average in baseball, isn't it? Optimal as it might seem by relative comparison, FSU still has a 60 percent chance of losing at least one game.

Why that’s important: How much would the playoff selection committee discount a one-loss FSU team because of a weaker ACC schedule -- the very one that dramatically increases its odds of going 12-0 in the regular season? How much cache would it carry being the defending champs? Would it need to go undefeated to crack the top four?

The Football Power Index formula suggests that Miami (13 percent win probability), Clemson (12 percent) and Florida (9 percent) will be the closest games.

But, c’mon, you’ve watched enough college football. It’s the longshot that often comes in.

That longshot is Notre Dame. And here’s why.

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Aggies, Rebels aren't top-25 teams 

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
10:55
AM ET
Kevin SumlinPatrick Green/Icon SMIKevin Sumlin's Texas A&M Aggies have high expectations for this 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 all will be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Which four teams should not be in the ESPN Power Rankings?

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Power Rankings: Four that should be in 

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
11:11
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Brandon ScherffKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Scherff -- the "best player in the country" -- leads an increasingly deep Hawkeyes roster.
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: Which four teams should have been in the ESPN Power Rankings?

In a replication of the new College Football Playoff selection committee, ESPN created a 13-person panel to vote on our weekly Power Rankings.

The preseason Top 25 is here, and there are some real misses by our in-house voting body. Here’s how I would have done it differently.

 





Iowa Hawkeyes


This is a no-brainer.

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Mike StoopsPeter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesOklahoma's defense, under Mike Stoops, allowed just 22.1 points per game last 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 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: Starting with the speed and versatility in the front seven, has Mike Stoops revitalized Oklahoma’s defense?

I don’t know that the makeover is complete, but there are some signs that new-slash-old Sooners defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has returned an edge to the defense. That’s particularly noticeable up front. If toughness and playmaking ability had eroded while Stoops was gone running his own program at Arizona, you started to see it reappear late last season. The seven-sack, five-takeaway performance in the Sugar Bowl win against Alabama was Exhibit A.

The bowl was the end of Stoops’ second season back in charge of the defense. What had taken so long to click?

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2015 Heisman Trophy front-runners 

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
9:46
AM ET
Christian HackenbergAP Photo/Gene J PuskarCan Christian Hackenberg overcome PSU's sanctions to make a 2015 Hesiman run?
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 the Heisman front-runners entering 2015?

I’ll make a selection from these three categories: (1) returning players with experience, (2) players on campus with no experience (2014 freshmen) and (3) Class of 2015 recruits.

Returning players with experience: Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg

Hackenberg certainly had his moments as a freshman, but he was still 75th in QBR (58.9 completion percentage, 20-10 TDs-to-INTs). There’s room to grow, and first-year coach James Franklin is decidedly enthused to inherit a high-end prospect he once recruited.

“As good as I thought he would be, he’s better,” Franklin told me recently.

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Chris PetersenAP Photo/Ted S. WarrenChris Petersen hopes to eclipse his success at Boise State in his new digs at Washington.
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: Could Chris Petersen’s arrival at Washington mean the Pac-12 North supplants the SEC West as the country’s top division?

• No, because the SEC West is still really, really good.

I think Texas A&M is an above-average football team with some star quality. I also think there’s a decent chance the Aggies finish fifth or sixth in the SEC West this fall, behind the obvious front-runners -- Alabama, Auburn and LSU -- and possibly Ole Miss and Mississippi State. I’m inclined to believe they would fare better in the Pac-12 North, tussling with Oregon State and Washington for third in the division.

The point is, the team and personnel depth just isn’t there yet. The North doesn't even come close to matching the West in recruiting. Since 2010, the West has signed a total of 15 top-10 classes, according to RecruitingNation. The North: zero. And the SEC West could conceivably have six AP Top 25 teams to start this season, compared to maybe three out of the North. Plus, when it comes to the two divisions’ heavyweights, the West is still producing teams that play for (and win) titles. Which brings me to that

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Jeremy Pruitt, Mark RichtAP Photo/David TulisWith new DC Jeremy Pruitt on board, is this the year Mark Richt and the Bulldogs break through?
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 kind of impact will new Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt have on the Bulldogs’ young and depleted defense?

In time, Pruitt should stabilize and elevate the defense -- which, most coaches agree, ought to have been better the past few years. It hasn't been bad (23rd in yards per play against since 2010), but the personnel suggests it could have been elite.

There’s nearly a consensus that UGA upgraded at DC in the offseason. Put it this way: One disappointed SEC assistant texted me when he learned former Georgia DC Todd Grantham was heading to Louisville. That coach didn’t exactly approve of the Pruitt hire, because it made his job more difficult. There’s respect there.

Keep this in mind, however: I’ve been told by those close to the UGA program not to expect 2013 Florida State-like magic in Pruitt’s first season in Athens.

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