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.

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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?

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videoUnless you are a fan of Auburn or Notre Dame, and maybe even if you are, chances are you did not correctly predict the participants in the past two BCS title games.

So there has been room for surprise title contenders in recent years, and that trend should only grow now that there’s a new system and room for two more in college football's final four.

Who are potential sleeper teams that could try on the Cinderella slipper in the initial playoff?

A hint: Two of the five are set to play in Week 1 on a neutral field.


ACC: Clemson Tigers

A perception exists that the Tigers will slip after losing several key offensive pieces, including likely top-five pick Sammy Watkins. Clemson's coaches are not buying it, and neither am I.

The simple fact is, in a departure from the past couple of years, the defense is talented enough to carry the offense if it needs to do so for stretches.

In fact, offensive coordinator Chad Morris told me that he approached new defensive boss Brent Venables two springs ago and told him, essentially, "we've got this" until the defense could catch up. And the defense picked up its play in the second half of 2012 and, very respectably, finished 23rd in yards per play and 24th in scoring in 2013.

A line that features six seniors, including tackle Grady Jarrett and end Vic Beasley, is the headliner, but head coach Dabo Swinney told me this week that it’s the most complete defense he has had, from front to back.

"A year ago, we were nobodies," Swinney said. "Now everyone knows their names."

As for the offense, there’s a lot of confidence that whoever wins the quarterback job will be capable of leading the unit.

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Dabo SwinneyStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDabo Swinney and the Tigers look to continue their upward trajectory in 2014.
CLEMSON, S.C. -- When I sat in Dabo Swinney’s office a year ago, the affable, energetic Clemson coach said his primary goal was the program’s sustainability. If the Tigers were annually in the top 15, he said, the conference titles and regular BCS bowl (and now playoff) appearances would follow.

An 11-win season in 2013, one that included the school’s first BCS bowl victory, was a step toward that standard of play. However, the task of following that season seems rather daunting, at least from the outside.

There’s less concern internally. Quarterback Tajh Boyd, receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant and tackle Brandon Thomas might be gone, but Swinney and his staff are confident about those replacing them. And they’re even more upbeat about a defense that could be the backbone of the team.

My top spring takeaway from Clemson’s camp is that, perhaps in contrast to those on the outside, no one here is bracing for a drop-off.

“The guys have set a standard. I don’t see it as refocus or rebuilding in any of that stuff,” Swinney said. “We’re not looking at who we lost. There’s turnover every year.”

Swinney mentioned that there are 19 scholarship seniors this season; Clemson had 21 the past two years combined. The defensive line alone has six.

“There’s a culture in place,” he said. “We have to protect that culture.”

Here are other takeaways from Clemson, including several items pertaining to the three-man quarterback race by Cole Stoudt, Chad Kelly and buzzed-about freshman Deshaun Watson.

Takeaway: Clemson might have the best defense in the ACC. (Yes, I know who else is in the league.)

Vic Beasley
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsSenior DE Vic Beasley will anchor a stout Tigers defense.
A year ago, the secondary was arguably the weakest area on the field for the Tigers. This year, it appears that the rest of the unit won’t have to deal with overcoming a weak back end.

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Stron/SarkisianGetty ImagesBoth Charlie Strong and Steve Sarkisian have much to accomplish this spring.
Put mildly, spring ball can sometimes become a labor of love for coaches.

“We got them back from spring break and tried to work the ‘fun’ out of them, gassers and squats,” one SEC assistant told me last week. “But that night was St. Patrick’s Day. Tuesday was like starting all over again. They were worthless.”

But there is value in the practices. For some, this particular spring is more important than it is elsewhere. At Texas and USC, for instance, new coaches are bringing their styles and systems to high-profile, visible college football hubs.

The Longhorns and Trojans lead our discussion of the five programs for which spring 2014 is the most critical (along with a handful of other programs facing critical springs).

1. Texas Longhorns, 2. USC Trojans

These two are inseparable because they’re both big-name programs with new hires, ones that will be heavily analyzed and scrutinized in the coming months (and years). Though they share similarities, they are ultimately different cases.

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Robert NkemdicheSpruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsFor Ole Miss to take the next step, Robert Nkemdiche will need to dominate.

Top 10 'prove-it' players on offense | Defense


A year ago, Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss signed a recruiting class that caused head turning from the SEC to the Pac-12. It created a buzz. And it was a sensation that wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to the Rebels, or to Freeze.

Ed Orgeron compiled a high-end class in 2006, but he could never turn it into wins. Freeze was on that staff, as an administrator and then an assistant, so he has seen firsthand that recruiting alone will not save a staff. Freeze has won 15 games in his first two seasons, an establishment of moderate success but success that must be built upon in one of the country’s toughest divisions.

Vegas, for one, is a believer that 2014 will be the year the Rebels will rise. A team that has gone 3-5 in the SEC in Freeze’s first two seasons is 40-1 to win the national title, according to the Las Vegas Hotel.

If it works out for Freeze, or if it doesn’t, we’ll point back to that 2013 class. That means we likely will point in particular to defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, RecruitingNation’s No. 1 overall prospect in 2013.

And that’s why Nkemdiche is atop the list of defensive players with the most to prove in the 2014 season:


1. Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss Rebels

Nkemdiche was the jewel of Freeze’s top-five haul, a Clemson flip the Rebels hoped would provide an immediate impact. He did, starting 10 games and collecting 34 tackles (8.5 for a loss). But only six of those games were starts at his recruited position, defensive end.

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David Ash and Devin GardnerAP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesTexas QB David Ash and Michigan QB Devin Gardner have much to prove in 2014.
A year ago, coming off a drug-related suspension and a drop-off in production, Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins was a prime example of a player with much to prove.

And now? After helping Clemson to its first BCS bowl victory, Watkins is a vindicated player and potential top-five draft prospect.

Who’s the Watkins in this cycle, an offensive player working to bounce back and prove himself in the wake of injuries or poor performances?

Here are the top 10 offensive “prove-it” players for 2014.


1. David Ash, QB, Texas Longhorns

Ash was lost early in 2013 to a concussion, and some close to the program told me at the time that his career might be over. But he’s back, given full clearance to participate in spring ball (even if there’s no contact for QBs).

Coaches in the area told me that, in the past, Ash struggled to grasp more complicated offensive concepts. It’s possible a different teacher, new QB coach Shawn Watson, will be eye-opening; or it’s possible a new system and voices could be even more problematic, opening the door to the talented, highly touted youngsters.

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Jameis WinstonRichard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston will be back to lead Florida State. But should they be 4-1 to win the title?

Top QB battles | Teams whose odds could fall | Rising odds


A year ago, I was floored to see Miami open at 25-1 to win the BCS title.

Miami? 25-1? Did I slip into a wormhole and land in the 1980s Cane Dynasty?

Vegas was banking on a number of returning starters and the seemingly soft ACC schedule. The Hurricanes looked the part in the first half of the season before devolving into the middle-of-the-road team that many, including myself, anticipated.

For all of the teams that Vegas nails, there are some Miamis in our midst. As spring practices get going across the country, which teams will see their 2014 title odds worsen before the beginning of the season? Who’s going to move? The reigning champs are up first.

Among the favorites ...



Florida State Seminoles (Bovada odds: 4-1)

With Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston returning, along with a load of talent, it’s easy to see why the Seminoles would be among the favorites to win the first College Football Playoff.

But there’s something about that word -- easy. Because winning one title is difficult enough. Two straight? Don’t let Alabama fool you into thinking it’s the norm. And then there’s the fact that no one yet knows exactly how much more difficult it will be to win in the playoff era.

FSU is hard to buy at 4-1. Put it this way: Alabama was 5-1 a year ago, when it was going for a third consecutive title. And there’s currently more faith in the Seminoles?

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Teams whose odds could improve 

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Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson TideKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide have good value right now at 6-1 to win the national title.
When’s the last time you could actually get value on Alabama as a national title contender? Been a while, right?

Creeping uncertainty after the Sugar Bowl and at the quarterback position makes the Tide, currently 6-1 to win the 2014 national title according to Bovada, a decent bet. Now, 6-1 isn’t exactly going to set you up for life, but for Alabama it isn’t too shabby.

Better act fast, though. That number could drop by August if, say, Jacob Coker comes in during preseason camp and wows. Would you be even a little surprised if that 6-1 shrank to 3-1 by sometime in October?

With Alabama leading the way, here is a look at teams that could see their title odds improve by the fall.

Among the favorites ...



Alabama Crimson Tide (Bovada odds: 6-1)

AJ McCarron’s departure, coupled with the flatlining loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, has created doubt about the Tide for the first time since 2011.

How did Alabama respond to that, to a three-loss season? Oh, just with consecutive BCS titles. What now after a two-game losing streak to close 2013?

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Jameis WinstonAP PhotoHow concerned should Florida State be about Jameis Winston playing baseball?

Top 10 spring QB battles | Hardest schedules | Easiest schedules


College football teams might not win or lose games this time of year, but a quarterback certainly can win or lose a starting job in the spring months.

Here are some of the top QB storylines to monitor in the five power conferences, including a potential rebound at Florida, a Heisman winner playing baseball and rising stars in the Big Ten and Big 12.

1. Jeff Driskel, Florida

Every position, including quarterback, is open when you go 4-8 at Florida. That was what embattled coach Will Muschamp told me a couple of weeks ago when I asked about Driskel and the other QBs, including Elite 11 early enrollee Will Grier.

That comment aside, Muschamp spent very little time talking about Grier, Skyler Mornhinweg and Treon Harris (yet to enroll). Instead, he was explicit in his hope for Driskel to deliver, finally.

“I’m excited for him and for us,” Muschamp said of Driskel coming back from the broken leg that caused him to miss most of 2013. “He had a great spring, great camp [in 2013] and then got hurt. He’s never had a chance to show what we’ve seen.”

With Muschamp seated squarely on the hot seat, it’s obviously a pivotal year at Florida. Driskel’s success, working with new coordinator Kurt Roper, could be instrumental in deciding the fates of many.

Muschamp said he already has witnessed good vibes shared between QB and coordinator since Roper arrived. He noted, too, that Roper has a track record of solid quarterback development.

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Braxton MillerSteve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Braxton Miller will miss some spring reps following shoulder surgery.

Top 10 spring QB battles | Hardest schedules | Easiest schedules


You know, the absurd number of injuries the Georgia football team dealt with in 2013 started with the head coach. Mark Richt, who had hip replacement surgery last year, wasn’t in the best of spirits when I visited his office in April. Rehab was tough and he wasn’t moving all that well. He seemed much more upbeat when I talked with him last week.

“I’ve about kicked it,” Richt said, laughing. “I don’t have to run or play on it, so I’ll be OK.”

Like Richt, the Bulldogs are on the mend -- and they do have to run and play on their healing parts. Florida, which also endured an inordinate number of major injuries last year, is likewise hopeful of a rebound.

Those regular SEC East contenders lead off our discussion of important spring injuries. Some teams are getting players back, while others will be missing pieces for their upcoming practices.

Richt aside, the medical omens were evident for both the Bulldogs and Gators. Freshman corner Reggie Wilkerson, who was likely going to be in the rotation for Georgia, tore his ACL in preseason camp. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell then did the same during the Clemson game, celebrating UGA’s first touchdown of the year. It was the most damaging flying butt bump in football history.

Meanwhile, when I visited Gainesville a few days before the Gators’ opener, they announced that vital offensive tackle Chaz Green had torn his ACL. From there, as you know, things spiraled. Georgia finished 8-5, Florida 4-8 and neither flirted with the division crown for which they fought head-to-head the season before.

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Stanford CardinalsMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsDavid Shaw and the Cardinal face a tough road to get to the playoff in 2014.

Top 10 spring QB battles | Hardest schedules | Easiest schedules


Begin analyzing 2014 schedules, and it takes only a minute or two to realize that the rising Pac-12 has created some real hurdles for its member schools to get through the regular season unscathed.

Good thing for the new playoff, or the conference’s strength might cause a team from the league to get bounced from the national title discussion. It has happened before, after all. The Oregon team from 2012, clearly viable beyond that overtime loss to Stanford, comes to mind.

As for this year, the Ducks, Cardinal and UCLA Bruins should all start in (or close to) the top 10. But each playoff hopeful will be challenged along the way.

Oregon might have the most difficult nonconference opponent, Michigan State, but the majority of Stanford’s trying games are on the road. The Cardinal lead our look at schedules that could make it tougher for playoff contenders from the power conferences (plus Notre Dame) to reach the final four.


1. Stanford Cardinal

Challenges: USC (Sept. 6); at Washington (Sept. 27); at Notre Dame (Oct. 4); at Arizona State (Oct. 18); at Oregon (Nov. 1); at UCLA (Nov. 28)

The Cardinal is replacing a number of defensive standouts, including linebacker Trent Murphy and safety Ed Reynolds, and the D will be tested early by first-year coaches at USC (Steve Sarkisian) and Washington (Chris Petersen). The most challenging league games are all on the road, in Tempe, Eugene and Pasadena. Add, too, a trip to South Bend.

Stanford's recent calling card has been winning big despite losing a head coach, assistants and important players such as Andrew Luck. You name it, the program has seemingly overcome it to sustain success.

If the Cardinal can survive this schedule, again replacing a handful of core performers, we'll all again acknowledge just how good of a coach David Shaw is.

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Urban MeyerKirk Irwin/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes have a relatively clear path to the college playoff.

Top 10 spring QB battles | Hardest schedules | Easiest schedules


At Insider, we often talk about title tracks, and the paths are now somewhat wider for every team thanks to the advent of the four-team playoff format. One thing hasn't changed, though: The Big Ten still maintains the clearest path to the title. And this year its best threat, Ohio State, must capitalize on it. That's a direct way of saying the Buckeyes have the easiest schedule in the easiest league to win.

Urban Meyer and Ohio State lead our discussion of the playoff contenders with the softest schedules. A rep from each of the other four power conferences follows. And here's an early tease: Our ACC selection might surprise you. It certainly surprised me as I examined the schedules.


1. Ohio State Buckeyes

Swing games: Virginia Tech (Sept. 6); at Michigan State (Nov. 8); Michigan (Nov. 29).

Scheduling Virginia Tech probably looked better when it was originally put in the books. It would be a big surprise if the Hokies could pull off an early-season upset, or even keep the game close. Still, credit coach Frank Beamer and the program for continuing to schedule big-name opponents year after year.

In the league, the Buckeyes avoid both Wisconsin, a team that really pushed them a year ago, and Nebraska.

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video

Top 10 spring QB battles | Hardest schedules | Easiest schedules


It’s rare that a player wins a quarterback job in the spring, but we should at least exit April with a better idea as to how things stand at a number of high-profile programs -- Texas, USC and a handful of SEC schools, among them -- that are seeking new signal-callers.

Here are the hottest QB battles entering spring camps, some of which begin in the next couple of weeks. (Sincerest apologies if you’re still shoveling snow; it’ll be over soon.) I’ve ordered the races from the most wide-open to ones that could eventually become contentious.


1. USC Trojans
Quarterbacks: Max Browne, Cody Kessler

Kessler was good last year in a season in which it was difficult for any Trojan to be good. But Browne has the skill set to be better.

“Big, strong, athletic,” new coach Steve Sarkisian said in January when I asked about Browne, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound redshirt freshman.

Sarkisian, the former Washington coach, has known Browne, a Washington native, since Browne was an eighth-grader. He thought he missed his chance to coach Browne after losing him to Lane Kiffin and USC, but coaching and life are funny like that. It was an unavoidable pairing, evidently.

It’s conceivable that Kessler, particularly coming out of the spring, could still emerge as the leader. Experience is in his favor, as is relatively steady play as a first-year starter. He was plus-13 in TDs-to-INTs (20-to-7) and hit 65 percent of his passes.

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Butch JonesAP Photo/Wade PayneButch Jones has an extremely strong class of early enrollees coming in.
There are conflicting viewpoints when it comes to the benefits-to-drawbacks ratio of early enrollees.

Alabama coach Nick Saban emerged this month as someone who believes joining a college program a few months early creates a “smoother transition,” despite the high school senior missing his final semester. The Crimson Tide are backing that philosophy up, bringing in eight January enrollees.

Then there are those coaches -- I recall Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops being one -- who think it is more difficult to enroll in January, because you’re joining a team and school year at an odd time. It can be alienating.

Plenty of teams believe midterm enrollees can make big, immediate impacts. Look at Tennessee, which brought in 14 newcomers in January.

The Vols lead off our list of teams that could benefit most from 2014 early enrollees, and several are SEC programs seeking immediate help.


Tennessee Volunteers

Potential impact players (ESPN300 rank): WR Josh Malone (43), S Todd Kelly Jr. (59), RB Jalen Hurd (70); WR Von Pearson (JC50 2), OT Dontravius Blair (JC50 26)

Georgia had 13 early enrollees in 2013 so, naturally, its SEC East rivals in Knoxville, Tenn., had to one-up the Bulldogs with 14 in 2014. The common denominator is need. Georgia was left depleted on defense a year ago, and the Volunteers have significant turnover on both sides of the ball.

Upon arrival, Butch Jones and his staff knew this day was coming; the personnel transition was sort of a delayed one. The skill spots have been bare for a year, so Hurd, Malone and Pearson could all compete for time immediately. Blair, as a juco, could fill some of the voids on the offensive line.

Hurd is the player I’ve heard most about from coaches in the region.

“Good kid,” said another SEC assistant who got to know the Nashville-area product while recruiting him.

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