Travis Haney: 2014 Ultimate Season Preview

Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen Icon SMI/USA TODAY SportsQuarterbacks Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen have high expectations to fill in Aggieland.
TGIF: Thank God, it’s football (season). And with the final installment of our Ultimate Season Preview -- what a journey it has been -- we’re wondering who will feel the loss of its QB more in tonight’s SEC Network kickoff: South Carolina (Connor Shaw) or Texas A&M (Johnny Manziel)?

Admittedly, I was leaning at first toward Shaw, the gritty 27-game winner for the Gamecocks. Then I did the “Championship Drive” podcast Wednesday with host extraordinaire Rece Davis and he talked some sense into me. (Thanks, Rece.)

“Let me help you with your story. The answer is Manziel because no team will miss their quarterback, or any player, like A&M will miss Manziel,” Davis said, lecturing me a bit when, really, I needed to be lectured.

He’s right. After all, Davis was on the broadcast team for Manziel’s final college game, when he led the Aggies on one last improbable, heart-racing comeback -- for old time’s sake -- in the 52-48 Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Duke.

Put it this way: I got married that night -- and we still found a way to watch the end of the rally on ESPN3, shivering in the Asheville, North Carolina night as we lit a few stogies. No lie. It was a highlight of the whole evening.

And no offense to Shaw, whom I’ve written about since he was in high school, but I would not have taken a break from the post-reception party to watch the end of his college career. I would have caught the highlights.

Manziel was different from anything I had ever seen on the field. He was magnetic. He was magical. And he was also vitally important to his team, especially given its defensive, um, shortcomings.

The 2013 Aggies scored 42 against Alabama and 41 against Auburn ... and lost both games. The D allowed Duke to score 48, Mississippi State 41, Ole Miss 38 and Arkansas 33, but was bailed out by an offense that averaged 47 points in those four games.

Given this season’s youth and some expulsions, I’m not even sure the 2014 A&M defense will be any better than the group that finished No. 109 in the nation in yards per play (6.4) allowed and 96th in scoring defense (32 ppg).

If Texas A&M is going to again have to outscore opponents, it’s only reasonable to say it will not be able to do that as well with Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen at QB.

“[Coach] Kevin [Sumlin] is going to earn that paycheck,” one SEC rival coach said, referring to Sumlin’s raise in the neighborhood of $5 million.

I see a 4-6 team. The SEC West is that unrelenting. It’ll tussle with Ole Miss for fifth in the division. (But the Aggies would be a contender in the Big 12, for what that’s worth. Just saying.)

Those closest to the A&M program tend to talk more about Allen and 2015 commit Kyler Murray than they do Hill. So that leads me to believe he could be in some trouble when he makes his first start tonight at hostile Williams-Brice Stadium.

Pivot Points: Power Five conferences 

August, 27, 2014
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Gary AndersonMichael Hickey/Getty ImagesThe Badgers could very well be playing a playoff contention knockout game in Week 1.
With the countdown to college football’s kickoff now measured in hours, we thought we would revise a feature from 2013 called “Pivot Points.” As a refresher, it’s cause-and-effect: “If X happens, then Y will happen.”

Here's one take for each Power Five conference:

If Wisconsin can get past LSU this week, then the Badgers will be in the playoff.


I’ll quickly lay out why the Badgers will at minimum gain momentum if they win this week.

Up next: Western Illinois, Bowling Green, South Florida, Northwestern, Illinois, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue. That takes you to the middle of November, when they close with Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa.

So even with some front-seven question marks and a first-time starter at QB, Wisconsin is 100 percent a playoff threat. But the Badgers will likely have to go undefeated to make it, which means knocking out a wild-card LSU team this weekend.

In fact, there’s a shot this could be a playoff contention knockout game. Both teams are on the fringe, and this is a win that both could very well need to woo the committee.

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Coaches reveal their playoff picks 

August, 26, 2014
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Hutson MasonTodd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia pulled in multiple votes among coaches -- could this suggest two SEC teams in the 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 Aug. 28.

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

Today's question: We polled 20 coaches and asked them, "Which teams do you predict will be in the inaugural College Football Playoff?"

We've analyzed the College Football Playoff pecking order in almost every way imaginable. I even started my deep dive back in January. All of the speculation will change this weekend, of course, when we have actual game activity on which to base our opinions.

In the meantime, however, I contacted as many coaches I could to poll them. Surely, they've seen, heard and know enough to gauge who will still be playing come January.

In fact, I’ll make a little wager. I’ll bet you an Austin street taco and a local brew that my group of 20 coaches nails all four playoff teams. I’ve got faith in this well-paid-yet-motley crew.

The only teams that didn't get a vote in my poll but still scare me as sleepers are Clemson and Miami from the ACC, Iowa from the Big Ten, Kansas State from the Big 12 and USC from the Pac-12. Clearly, those squads are on the far end of the probability spectrum, but so were 2013 Auburn and 2012 Notre Dame.

And if a playoff team does wind up being one not listed here, well, we’re in for a really fun year -- and I’ll buy you a dang taco and a beer, anyway.

In addition to the 20 responses, three coaches abstained. UCLA’s Jim Mora promptly responded that he "didn't have an opinion," which elicited a chuckle from me.

“I only think about two teams, UCLA and our opponent,” Mora said. “Classic coachspeak!”

Troll on, Jimmay. Your pops is proud as we enter this play-offff?! era.

And then there’s the Power Five coach who suggested this final four: Air Force, New Mexico State, Idaho and Eastern Michigan. There’s one in every crowd, isn’t there?

But on to more earnest efforts: There was a lot of chalk, and a lot of favorites. A ballot I particularly liked was one coach taking Florida State, South Carolina, Stanford and Wisconsin.

“Didn’t want to come with the typical BS,” he said. Perfectly plausible -- and original! Thanks, Coach.

As for the chalk, the coaches picked four conference favorites as the leaders to make the playoff: FSU (19 of 20 ballots), Alabama (16), Oklahoma (10) and Oregon (10).

Let’s cut through that to where the intrigue begins. I have a hunch that the next six teams chosen by the coaches, receiving between two and five votes, wind up being the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds. There will be surprises. And they’ll likely come from this group.


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Connor CookAllen Kee/ESPN ImagesConnor Cook and the Spartans can emerge as new Big Ten favorites for the 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: In honor of the College Football Playoff, which four teams' stock has been on the rise since the start of preseason camp, and which four teams have seen their stock drop?

Whether or not Ohio State is ultimately hopeless without Braxton Miller, we know that, at the bare minimum, the Buckeyes’ national title chances took a substantial hit when the playmaking senior quarterback re-injured his throwing shoulder last week.

Where there was previously a swirl of uncertainty and optimism around the Buckeyes -- who, mind you, haven’t lost a regular-season game since 2011 -- now only lies unsettling doubt.

“I already wasn’t sure about them,” one coach said last week, just after the Miller news hit. “Without [Miller], there’s no way. He got them out of so many bad plays. Who cares if he ever became a [pure] passer? The kid made things happen.”

You know what’s distinctly possible? An 0-2 start. Would you be all that stunned if the Miller-less Bucks, trying to figure things out and establish a new identity, stumbled against both Navy and Virginia Tech? Those are not bad teams, folks. And ESPN's recently-updated Football Power Index now has OSU ranked No. 12, down six spots minus Braxton.

For the obvious reason of losing what might have been college football’s most valuable player to his team’s playoff chances, Ohio State leads our discussion of teams with shifting stock during August.

And in each case, there is a beneficiary on the rise. That is to say, for every Ohio State, there’s a Michigan State.

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Week 2 make-or-break for Big Ten 

August, 20, 2014
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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 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 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.

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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
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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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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
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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
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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
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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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2015 Heisman Trophy front-runners 

August, 8, 2014
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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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HermanJason Mowry/Icon SMIWill Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman take a head-coaching job in 2015?
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 next great head coach in college football?

There are some really strong coordinators who will one day make successful head coaches. The list includes Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Michigan State DC Pat Narduzzi, Georgia DC Jeremy Pruitt, Arizona State deputy head coach/OC Mike Norvell and Texas A&M OC Jake Spavital.

Picking just one is really difficult. But the assistant I hear most about is Tom Herman -- the offensive coordinator at Ohio State.


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