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 -- all bases will 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.
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.”

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

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.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

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.”

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Nick SabanGetty Images, AP PhotoFSU, Oregon and Alabama should all be in the playoff mix. But how open are their title windows?
As a part of ESPN.com’s college football mock playoff, I thought I would evaluate the current title windows for each of the 16 participants.

In 2014, are the teams in their prime for title contention? Are their windows closing (they’d better win now)? Or are their windows opening (hope for the next cycle)?

Disclaimer: If your team is among those with closing windows, remain calm. It doesn’t mean your school’s program is folding; you’re a recruiting class or a quickly developing quarterback away from again wedging open that window.

Closing ...

Oregon Ducks

Bluntly, it’s a big year for Mark Helfrich. The second-year coach needs to show program sustainability beyond Chip Kelly, and he needs to do so by getting Oregon -- among the preseason favorites on an annual basis -- into the first playoff.

Oregon isn’t falling into the Pacific, but immediacy has been created by the surprising decisions two Ducks standouts made to return to school. Quarterback Marcus Mariota and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu were projected first-rounders, but now they’ll be veteran leaders on their respective sides of the ball. (Center Hroniss Grasu also would have been an early-round pick and returned.)

As I wrote earlier in the year, it’s time for the 2012 recruiting class to emerge. Running back Byron Marshall and receiver Bralon Addison figured to be the team’s most established playmakers, but then Addison tore his ACL this spring. The defensive front is comprised of '12 signees Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci.

After averaging the 18th-best class in our recruiting rankings from 2010 to '12, the Ducks dipped to 26th in 2013 and 27th in 2014.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Gary AndersonJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesGary Andersen's Wisconsin Badgers open the season with a huge matchup against LSU.
MADISON, Wis. -- College coaching fits are mostly straightforward. You know, a coach went to the school at which he now works, or he at least has ties to the area that will pay recruiting dividends or make the fan base feel as if he’s one of them.

Gary Andersen, who has been here in Wisconsin’s capital city for a little more than a year, is originally from Salt Lake City and arrived here via Utah State. And yet, after a conversation in his office and a general evaluation of his philosophies and priorities, you’d swear he had Badger blood.

In short, Andersen wants his program to be centered on running the ball, playing defense and graduating players. So it’s no wonder that athletic director Barry Alvarez, a longtime UW coach who has a statue outside Camp Randall, saw quickly that Andersen was his guy when Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas. Continuity, it turns out, came in the form of a coach thousands of miles away.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Dak Prescott, Jalen RamseyUSA TODAY SportsQuarterback Dak Prescott and defensive back Jalen Ramsey could be poised for breakout seasons.
We all know by now that running backs have evolved into a low-value position on NFL draft boards, but that doesn’t change the fact that it could easily be the strongest spot in college football this fall. That could project to at least one or two first-rounders in the 2015 draft pool.

In addition to known studs such as Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, a new crop of running backs has breakout potential in 2014.

Here are 15 post-spring names to remember -- several of them running backs -- in addition to an update on the 10 I offered in January. It’s all a prelude to our master list of breakout candidates, due out in early August as preseason camps begin.


1. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State

With five total TDs in the team’s bowl win, Prescott emerged late last season as a pseudo-breakout performer.

Those in the league, however, perceive that he could become more of a national name this fall. He’s why some, including me, like Mississippi State as an SEC sleeper this fall.

“He’s like a lot of the other athletic quarterbacks, [such as] Braxton [Miller] or Johnny [Manziel],” one SEC assistant told me. “He just needs to come along as a passer.”

Prescott’s 58 percent completion rate needs to move toward 65-70 for a sizable-but-reasonable jump. He also needs to show late-game moxie: Three of Prescott’s seven picks came in the fourth quarter, the only quarter in which his QB rating dipped below 100.


2. KeiVarae Russell, CB, Notre Dame

Russell has been solid so far in his career, but those close to the program believe he will take off as a junior in new coordinator Brian VanGorder’s system.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

DixonStephen M. Dowell/Getty ImagesWill South Carolina defensive end Gerald Dixon be able to fill the void left by Jadeveon Clowney?
With a dizzying first round in the books, the NFL’s 32 teams will move Friday and Saturday to the value picks in the middle and later rounds.

But the college teams replacing first-round selections? They have long since turned the page.

Starting with the No. 1 pick, Jadeveon Clowney, here are some updates on the positions left vacant by some of the NFL’s future stars.


Defensive end, South Carolina Gamecocks
The draft pick: Jadeveon Clowney (No. 1, Houston)
The replacement: Gerald Dixon

There’s no doubt the position is going to take a step back after losing Clowney -- the school’s second No. 1 pick -- as well as underrated vet Chaz Sutton and Devin Taylor the previous year. The turnover is to the point that defensive coordinator Whammy Ward has hinted that the Gamecocks might tinker with more 3-4 looks and shake up their 4-2-5 base.

Dixon is developing into a very serviceable SEC defensive end, similar to what Sutton became toward the end of his career. But the key to the position is how far redshirt sophomore Darius English progresses.

Ward told me last summer that he had a raw, pure pass-rusher in English. But English struggled to put on enough weight to be anything more than a specialist. When I texted Ward on Thursday, he said English had added 15 pounds to get to 250.

“It will help,” Ward said.

If he can hold his ground and be something closer to a three-down end, it would certainly aid the transition.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Jadaveon Clowney, Sammy Watkins and Khalil MackGetty Images, AP PhotoWhat do college coaches think about the NFL outlook for Clowney, Watkins and Mack?
After an active few months of debate and dissection, draft week has (finally) arrived.

What are college coaches expecting from some of the best players they coached and coached against? Here are thoughts on Jadeveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel and the rest of the top 10 in Todd McShay’s Mock Draft 6.0.

1. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina

Outside of Johnny Football, there is no draft prospect whom college coaches are talking about more than Clowney. And that’s especially the case in SEC country. Opponents were terrorized by Clowney for a couple of years, and then he had limited impact as a junior. Speculation as to why has been bandied about for months, including by the college coaching world.

Was Clowney holding back? Will that top gear return this fall? Was it simply that he got worn down by constant double- and triple-team blocks? College coaches are mostly of the opinion that the 2012 version of Clowney will be back -- and then some.

Coach No. 1: “If [the Texans] don’t take him, someone will get fired. They can’t take a chance on a quarterback with him out there.”

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Derrick HenryKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry is one of several talented running backs for Alabama this season.
Alabama’s running backs, Baylor’s receivers and FSU’s defensive backs were among the best position groups a year ago. Some of the personnel has changed, but that fact hasn’t. They’re still at the top.

Here is a post-spring look at the country’s best 10 position groups, along with some honorable mentions.

1. Alabama running backs

The Sugar Bowl was widely forgettable in the Crimson Tide’s recent run of success, but the prideful legion of fans could at least take away that the already strong running back position got even stronger with freshman Derrick Henry’s nine-touch, 161-yard, two-touchdown performance.

Put Henry’s size and speed with similarly gifted runners T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake and you have the No. 1 position group in college football.

If there’s such a thing as a quiet 1,200-yard, 14-TD season, Yeldon had it as a sophomore. Drake added 700 yards and eight scores. Henry was seldom used until the bowl.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

videoSpring football has mostly wrapped. If we have a fall as intriguing as this spring -- and I suspect we will with the arrival of the playoff system -- college football is in for quite a ride in 2014.

The spring highlights included Nebraska coach Bo Pelini lifting a cat like the mayor hoisting Punxsutawney Phil in "Groundhog Day" and the Heisman Trophy winner playing in a football scrimmage on a Saturday and closing a road baseball game the next day.

Here are my spring takeaways leading into the summer months. Take heart, college football fans: We're just four months from the kickoff between South Carolina and Texas A&M in Columbia.

1. Some programs' possible starting QBs have yet to arrive, including Alabama's

The reviews I have heard of Lane Kiffin's first spring were positive. They fit what I presumed to be true: Kiffin, in a very different role as a supporting cast member instead of the lead, would fit well within a highly respected mentor's system.

What's interesting in Kiffin's initial spring, important and useful as it might have been, is that it likely did not include Alabama's starting quarterback. FSU transfer Jacob Coker will arrive this summer, joining the race that to this point has featured Blake Sims and Cooper Bateman.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen Icon SMI/USA TODAY SportsKenny Hill and Kyle Allen are both competing for Texas A&M's starting QB spot.
Quarterback battles do not always resolve themselves in the spring -- in fact, it’s somewhat rare -- but this cycle provided some news and emerging figures from notable programs across the country.

Starting with an open-but-refined race to replace Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M, here are some of those QB battle updates and what they might mean for the 2014 season.

Texas A&M Aggies

Contenders: Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen

In the space of three weeks at A&M recently, Hill, a sophomore, had been suspended for a minor arrest, and veteran Matt Joeckel let his coaches know that he intended to transfer. Hill will eventually be reinstated, but for now that leaves Allen, a freshman, as the only true eligible option to replace Manziel.

Jake Spavital, approaching his first full season as the Aggies’ playcaller, tells me that the message for the two young quarterbacks is very different. And it remains to be seen how each receives that summer counsel and where Allen and Hill land by preseason camp in August.

For Allen, now four months into his time in college, it’s clearly a matter of education. But the staff saw enough mental and physical aptitude to know Allen is a legitimate candidate to start from day one.

“He came pretty far [during the spring],” Spavital told me Monday. “I’m telling you, he’s very mature for being 18 years old. I threw the entire offense at him. . . . We threw him in and tried to see how he learns.”

For Hill -- suspended for allegedly passing out in a flower bed outside a bar in College Station -- it’s a matter of growing up.

“Kenny’s been through it all,” Spavital said. “He’s just got to mature and be a leader. He has the tools to do it, but he has to show to the entire team that he can do it.”

Unlike Allen, Hill does at least have some experience. He played in four games last season, completing 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards and a score. Only one of the games featured an SEC opponent (Vanderbilt), and all of his snaps came in blowouts.

Still, it’s something. And Spavital said Hill has shown strides in terms of comprehension.

“He knows how to operate the whole entire [offense],” he said. “He knows what’s right and wrong. He doesn’t make as many rookie mistakes as Kyle.

“It comes down to a leadership standpoint with Kenny. Is he capable of leading the team?”

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Charlie StrongErich Schlegel/Getty ImagesCharlie Strong has said he will reinforce an up-tempo offense with the Longhorns.
If you are unaware, Charlie Strong has the reputation of being someone who does not exactly like to show his cards. It’s why some coaches I know wondered how the guarded, introverted coach would fare with a spotlight as bright as the one at the University of Texas.

We’ll see, in time, but give him this: Strong was up front in saying the Longhorns will embrace an up-tempo offense, the same style that has worked, and mostly worked well, for years in the Big 12.

“I want to play fast,” Strong said earlier this month as we talked in a conference room adjacent to his plush new office, the one that belonged to Mack Brown for a decade and a half. “For me, it starts at practice. I just don’t like guys sitting round, not running on and off the field.”

As spring workouts wind down, Texas leads our discussion of scheme changes and tweaks in college football.

Brown had promised a year ago that the Longhorns would, like the majority of their conference peers, move the offense at a faster pace.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Gus Malzahn, Steve SpurrierGetty Images, Icon SMIShould Gus Malzahn's Tigers be ranked below Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks to start the season?
I respect Phil Steele’s ability to forecast a number of things, including what the initial Associated Press Top 25 poll will look like in August. That said, there’s always wiggle room, and I had a few different takes than those in last week’s post on Insider.

Including the defending SEC champs, here’s a look at three top 15 teams that I found to be overvalued in Steele’s ranks, and three that were undervalued.

Overrated


Auburn Tigers (No. 4)

I do not wholly disagree that Auburn will begin the year as a top-five team, in the AP or any other poll; I’m just not sure that they should. Should they be in the top 10? Absolutely. But not No. 4.

The 2013 Tigers followed the same formula as the 2010 BCS title-winning team: an absurdly productive offense, led by an unparalleled run game and a defense with its share of liabilities. The Tigers’ D ranked 95th in yards per play (5.96).

Even defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson admitted to me last fall that it was a limited group, one susceptible to big plays. Auburn overcame that in the SEC title game against Missouri -- just keep scoring! -- but ultimately couldn’t in the BCS championship game against FSU.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

HillBob Levey/Getty ImagesThe Aggies' quarterback race might not be settled by the time the season begins.
As my travel schedule would have it, I visited the South Carolina and the Texas A&M campuses in the past couple of weeks. I noticed that each team’s coaches were curious about the other, which is only natural since they play the first game of the college season on Aug. 28. (It’s the first game on the new SEC Network, by the way.)

When I was in Columbia, some of the assistants and team officials were laughing because of what South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier had said the day before. He was asked a generic question about the Aggies. Spurrier responded by complimenting A&M’s progress since joining the SEC, and he then offered one of those lines you’ve come to expect from the Head Ball Coach.

“They’ve got a coach that makes $5 million, so they must be pretty good,” Spurrier said, grinning.

I asked Kevin Sumlin, the $5 Million Man, if he had heard about the exchange.

“Oh, yeah,” Sumlin said, laughing. “I love Coach Spurrier.”

The game is still a few months away, but they’re clearly on each other’s radar. Here are some takeaways I had from the Gamecocks’ and Aggies’ spring camps, as they continue preparations for their opener.

The Aggies should be better on defense, but ... there was nowhere to go but up

You’ll hear a lot about Johnny Manziel being gone, and rightfully so, but A&M’s defense is the more pressing matter.

Help is on the way, but will it be enough to improve what was the 109th-ranked defense in the country -– and last in the SEC -- in yards per play in 2013?

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SPONSORED HEADLINES