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.
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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:


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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

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Will MuschampSam Greenwood/Getty ImagesThe Gators haven't performed up to expectations with Will Muschamp at the helm.
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 has gone wrong for Will Muschamp and the Florida Gators? Can it be repaired?

The basics: Muschamp has a 22-16 record in three seasons with the Gators. That includes an 11-2 season in 2012 that, considering Florida’s limited offensive attack, should have looked something more like 9-4. It also includes a 4-8 campaign last year that, thanks to a stunning rash of injuries, should have been something more like 7-5 or 8-4.

Those staggered finishes mean Muschamp’s record is actually close to where it should be -- which means it isn’t where it should be in the eyes of Florida supporters or even those watching from afar.

Florida is a premier job. The standard, originally set by Steve Spurrier and renewed by Urban Meyer, is to play for conference and national titles.

If Muschamp intends to keep his job, he will have to demonstrate that he can quickly turn the Gators into a contender.

What’s gone wrong?

Not the defense: In Muschamp’s three years, the Gators -– with that middling record –- rank fifth among power conference teams in yards per play allowed and sixth in scoring D. That’s nearly Alabama- and Florida State-level play over a three-year period.

“Even if he isn’t a head coach,” a coach in another league told me this spring, “Will can coach the hell out of a defense. I know that.”

Which means:

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Everett GolsonJoel Auerbach/Getty ImagesFollowing a suspension last season, Everett Golson will get another chance with the Fighting Irish.
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.


The question: What will the Notre Dame Fighting Irish look like on offense in 2014 with the return of QB Everett Golson?

Golson was one of the college counselors this week at the Elite 11 finals in Beaverton, Oregon. I had a chance to talk with him at Nike HQ about his return from suspension and also what the Irish could display this fall on offense. One of the first points he made was the 2014 offense will not be like the 2012 version.

“Oh, it’s a lot different,” he told me. “I look at it like this: You play to your side. [In 2012,] the defense was our strong side, so we were a little more conservative -- running more, in I-formation, play-action, that stuff. Now, we’re going to be more open, more spread option -- and we have the tools do it.”

I asked Golson to pick a breakout candidate on offense.

“Really,” he said, “all of us are trying to break out.” But he eventually relented and settled on RB Greg Bryant, who played sparingly last year and then missed the rest of the season with an injury.

The backfield will be crowded with Bryant,

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Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesWisconsin's Gary Anderson has won 25 of his last 32 games as a head coach.
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.


The question: Which teams outside the top 25 of our CFB Future Power Rankings could make the list next year?

Here is a school to watch from each power conference.


Wisconsin Badgers (No. 26 in 2014 FPR)

The Badgers missed the top 25 by a decimal point. They won nine games last season and went to the Capital One Bowl in Gary Andersen's first season as head coach. So it's not as if they had fallen far after Bret Bielema took the program to three consecutive Rose Bowls.

I expect the Badgers to rise, particularly after a spring visit with the engaging and honest Andersen. He seems to be a perfect philosophical fit in Madison, where a strong running game and defense have long been central to success.

Another member of our five-man FPR panel, Mark Schlabach, agreed with me, saying the Badgers would have been in his top 25.

The central question is recruiting, a category in which Wisconsin received a 5.8 rating on our 10-point scale. Andersen admitted to me that it's been something that he and his staff have had to adjust to since coming over from the Utah State Aggies. Still, they found and developed talent in Logan, Utah, so it stands to reason they'll be able to succeed with the additional resources and support offered at Wisconsin.

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Charlie StrongAP Photo/Eric GayCharlie Strong struggled in a public speaking appearance at a camp in San Angelo.
SAN ANGELO, Texas -- A 20-minute slot for new Texas head coach Charlie Strong stood out on the three-day schedule at the recent coaching clinic at Angelo State -- one of my stops on a recent mid-June trip through Texas. The clinic is a 40-year tradition for the state’s high school coaches to learn from their college counterpart and was one of his first outings in front of a large number of the state’s high school coaches. I was intrigued to hear what Strong’s message would be in one of his first outings in front of a large number of high school coaches.

Part of the intrigue stemmed from the perception -- held by many of his peers and even those who know him well –- that Strong is something of an introvert, and that the social aspect of the UT job might not be his, ahem, strong suit.

Those in attendance didn't seem impressed by Strong’s time on the stage. Maybe it was coincidence, but someone let out a loud laugh just as Strong wrapped.

“I think everyone was shocked. It was that bad,” one coach told me later.

“It made me miss Mack,” one joked.

Another: “If I was the coach at Texas, I would act like I had bigger balls than that.”

Strong spoke so rapidly, jamming one sentence on top of another as if he were playing verbal Tetris, that you would have thought he had two minutes, not 20. It was difficult to follow his train of thought or discern the central points being made.

The bulk of the address sounded like something more suited for parents or boosters than people who also coach for a living.

An example: He said he intended to “put the ‘T’ back in Texas” with “toughness, trust, togetherness and teamwork.”

Or the primary mission being, “We want to see young men graduate,” and “We want to win championships,” because “there’s nothing more fun than a championship.”

I jotted “LOL” in my notebook when he told coaches “either you’re growing or you’re dying.”

What does it all mean for Strong in his first year at Texas? That’s where we begin my Texas Takeaways, which include FSU’s impressive new defensive coordinator, insight behind the Lane Kiffin hire and more.

Not a Strong impression

In the most connective moment of his speech, Strong closed by inviting coaches to visit campus, and he actually acknowledged the situation. It might have been a nice place to start; it was the only portion that didn’t feel rehearsed or cliché-ridden.

“We are the premier university in this state,” he said. “I know you’re all watching to see what happens. We have some work to do. We’re going to get that done because of the staff we have.”

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Jacob CokerJeff Gammons/Getty ImagesWill Jacob Coker's transition from Tallahassee to Tuscaloosa be a smooth one?
I talked a couple of weeks ago with a coach about the new rule that allows for summer "practice" hours.

"We're not going out there in pads or anything," he said, "but we can add a couple of hours watching film. It's a good thing, but it's not a game-changer or anything like that. In fact, we have to kind of figure out our [personal] schedules to make it work."

From that, rule or no rule, we learn that the summer is still the slowest time in the college football calendar. But there are still the same potential benefits for eager players interested in improving on their own time.

There is a particular opportunity for quarterbacks, who often organize and lead the summer 7-on-7 sessions. That period can prove helpful for QBs in a variety of career stations. Here are 10 QBs who could benefit most from strong summer months, leading into preseason camp.

1. Jacob Coker, Alabama Crimson Tide

Have you caught yourself thinking, "For a dude who has never taken a meaningful snap, we sure talk a lot about Jacob Coker?" Even Bama fans might admit to that. (OK, maybe not.)

I guess it is mere reality when you're replacing a QB who won multiple titles for what is currently the most visible college football program on the planet.

Nick Saban has started to tamp down Coker's legend, and understandably, but anyone who has seen the skill sets of those other Tide QBs knows that Coker has the best chance to be the starter for the opener against West Virginia.

Why is this summer important? Because he's actually in Tuscaloosa, having completed his academic work at FSU.

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Nick SabanStacy Revere/Getty ImagesMost coaches don't want to see Nick Saban on the other sideline in a playoff game.
The question posed in recent weeks to several college head and assistant coaches was a straightforward one: In the coming playoff, which big-name head coach would you least like to see across from you on the other sideline? Who presents the toughest matchup, based on coaching style?

And, conversely, which coach would you most like to see? Who would be an instant mismatch in your favor?

I was reminded by one coach last week that the head coach’s role has evolved in the past couple of decades. Yes, the head coach (for the most part) still has final say and influence, but many of the personnel and scheme decisions -- even on game days -- are made by coordinators and appointed assistants.

Still, head coaches are the iconic characters in the game. They’re the ones whose images will be seen most often when the playoff begins this fall. And they’re the ones who will likely shoulder the blame and receive the credit.

Other coaches don’t want to see ...

1. Nick Saban, Alabama

Well, of course Saban is No. 1. On the record, another coach once called him the devil. Off the record, peers have called him much worse.

But that’s respect. Respect and some envy. Other coaches might not do the job like Saban if they had the chance, but they sure would sign up for his career record and contract.

“It’s a recruiting thing. They have better players than just about every team every year,” one coach told me last week. “And they really do develop well. When they miss on a guy -- and they’ve missed some; everyone does -- they have two more ready to go. That’s harder to do than people realize. It is where we are, anyway.”

Saban took Alabama to three BCS title games, and it won all three. LSU won in its only title-game appearance during his tenure there.

“In big games, games that really matter, they’ve been damn hard to beat,” another coach added. “He gets them focused and prepares them very well.”

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