When fates of college football seasons rest on the shoulders of 18- to 22-year-olds, there's always going to be a degree of unpredictability involved. Games can hinge on the arm of an inconsistent quarterback or the inexperience of a secondary or the injuries along an offensive line, and, as we've seen on numerous occasions, it's not too hard for 11-1 to become 8-4, or for 8-4 to become 5-7.
Entering 2014, there are a few obvious places where players will be under the microscope, whether it's the need for a massive offensive turnaround at Florida, or for holes to be plugged on the back end of the defense at Georgia. As the season nears, here are the players who will be under the most pressure to become consistently productive starters to propel their teams to greater heights, or to prevent falls.
1. Jeff Driskel, QB, Florida
Maybe a little too much criticism gets directed Driskel's way. After all, Florida's season-long offensive struggles in 2013 couldn't be blamed on him, given that he played only two full games before a broken leg knocked him out for the season during the Tennessee game. The last time we saw him for the duration, he completed 22 of 33 passes for 291 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in a loss at Miami. But Driskel has been an easy lightning rod for criticism, after an underwhelming debut season as a starter in 2012 in which he finished 11th in the SEC in yards per attempt and was inconsistent as a runner. Now, though, entering his senior year, there may be no more excuses for not taking the next step.
This is Florida, which has been a national power for most of the last 25 years, winning three national championships and producing two Heisman winners. Under Urban Meyer, the Gators were the dominant team of the second half of last decade. Entering 2014, they're ... attempting to rebound from 4-8, from a loss to Georgia Southern and one of the worst offenses in program history. What's on the line? Will Muschamp's job, for one. Muschamp handed the reins of the offense over to former Duke coordinator Kurt Roper, now his third offensive coordinator in four years in Gainesville. Roper is charged with modernizing an offense that, under Muschamp's staff, has been seemingly set back about five decades. He'll increase the tempo and spread the field, trying to replicate what happened at Duke last year, when the Blue Devils shockingly won 10 games as one of the most well-coached teams in the country.
In theory, that style of offense should better utilize the skill set of Driskel. Driskel originally won the job two years ago over Jacoby Brissett (now at N.C. State) partly because of his mobility, but offenses under Brent Pease (and Muschamp's overarching generally conservative philosophy) failed to adequately harness his tools and allow him to develop. Driskel averaged only 3.5 yards per carry with four rushing touchdowns in 2012, and over the last two years the offense has totally ignored downfield passing. That has to change, and Florida has to evolve, otherwise we'll see an entire new coaching staff in 2015, with acclaimed freshman Will Grier waiting in the wings behind Driskel. Yes, the coaching staff is charged with finally putting Driskel in a better position to succeed, but it's also a matter of him proving that he can step up to the challenge of a more open offense that tries to operate in more space.
It's impossible for Florida to get worse, at least. The Gators will be healthier, and there's reason to believe Roper will be a solid answer for the offensive train wreck over the last few years. But merely getting back to a respectable 8-4 or 9-3 or competing for the SEC East title may rest largely in the hands of Driskel and his ability to take a step forward in another new offense.
2. Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis; OL; Michigan
A concise summary of the 2013 Michigan Wolverines football season:
Not all the blame goes on the offensive line. Quarterback Devin Gardner became careless with the ball. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint didn't show much ability to create on his own. Most importantly, the play calling of Al Borges failed to adapt to the team's strengths and weaknesses, as Michigan stubbornly insisted that this was MICHIGAN FOOTBALL, and therefore a talented, productive offensive line would be paving the way for power football, totally ignoring reality. Instead of compensating for the problem, Michigan turned an obvious weakness into an even bigger weakness by acting like nothing was wrong.
Of course, all of these problems are magnified by the fact that the Wolverines offensive line just couldn't cut it last year, even with the presence of All-America left tackle Taylor Lewan, a top-15 draft pick. Michigan doubled the number of sacks it allowed in 13 games, from 18 in 2012 to 36 last year. In a four-overtime loss at Penn State, Toussaint infamously carried the ball 27 times for 27 yards. The interior offensive line struggled to anchor in pass protection and couldn't create a forward push in the running game. Obviously, something has to change.
With Hoke potentially in hot water, he got rid of Borges and brought in former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who will try to continue to play power football but diversify the offense and play to its strengths -- mainly, Gardner's improvisational skills and the presence of borderline un-coverable receiver Devin Funchess, who is shifting out wide full-time from tight end. But for as much upside as there is here -- which was occasionally shown last year, like in the Notre Dame, Indiana and Ohio State games -- nothing will change if the interior of the offensive line doesn't solidify to allow Gardner to breathe easier and to give sophomore running back Derrick Green a chance. Hopefully, Nussmeier and line coach Darrell Funk will be able to turn the tables, behind a combination of Kalis, a sophomore; Bosch, also a sophomore; Miller, a junior center; and Graham Glasgow, a junior who can play anywhere on the line but is suspended for the season opener.
3. Peter Jinkens, Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks; LB; Texas
Hicks, who's supposed to be the leader of the defense, just hasn't been able to catch a break. After recording a promising 55 tackles in 2011, he's been unable to stay healthy for more than a third of a season, playing in a total of only seven games over the last two years. Last year, he tore his Achilles in late September; the year before he missed most of the season with a hip injury. He's back for a fifth year now thanks to a medical redshirt, hoping to stay healthy and capitalize on all the potential he's shown in limited action as a former five-star recruit.
Hicks will try to rebound under the tutelage of a new coaching staff led by acclaimed defensive mind Charlie Strong, who put together great units under Urban Meyer at Florida and as head coach at Louisville. Ultimately, the Longhorns run defense wasn't totally terrible last year, as it ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 in giving up 4.4 yards per carry and 183 yards per game, but it certainly wasn't at the level where it needed to be, as everyone saw when BYU QB Taysom Hill ran for 259 yards. Honestly, you can say just about everyone at Texas is under pressure -- from quarterback David Ash to the secondary -- but the most glaring weaknesses last year were on defense, and with players like Quandre Diggs at cornerback, Cedric Reed at end and Malcom Brown at tackle, the linebacking corps is the unit with the most to prove. We'll find out just how much progresses has been made early, too: Texas has a rematch with Hill and BYU in Week 2, then faces UCLA's Brett Hundley on Sept. 13 and Oklahoma's Trevor Knight on Oct. 11.
4. Quincy Mauger and Corey Moore, S, Georgia
It wasn't just the Miracle at Jordan-Hare, although that was emblematic of the problem. While offensive injuries contributed to Georgia's underwhelming 8-5 season, more revealing were the holes and frequent mistakes in pass defense: Despite owning a talented pass rush, the Bulldogs ranked 94th in yards per pass attempt allowed (7.7). Only one opponent (LSU) actually threw for 300 yards against Georgia, but the back end of the defense was particularly susceptible to being out of position and giving up big plays. Now, it must somehow get into shape despite the dismissals of projected starters Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews. Both were blue-chip recruits, and now the Bulldogs are left with a thin secondary (cornerback Shaq Wiggins also left the team) as they try to rebound from a disappointing season.
Fortunately, in to try to fix the problem is new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who has been a part of the last three national champions, first as defensive backs coach at Alabama, then in one season as coordinator for Florida State, which may have had the nation's best defense last year. However, while Pruitt is undoubtedly one of the rising stars of college coaching, let's not confuse the situation at Georgia with what he walked into at Florida State. The Seminoles has a star-studded secondary already led by Lamarcus Joyner and a bunch of other breakout candidates; Georgia is just trying to make sure it has enough bodies to fill its two-deep. The good news is that the Bulldogs boast one of the nation's best front sevens, with a trio of stars at linebacker in Leonard Floyd, Ramik Wilson and Jordan Jenkins, plus Ray Drew anchoring the line, all of which will make life easier for a revamped secondary by pressuring opposing quarterbacks, in a league that lacks experience at the position.
Still, this is a team that has College Football Playoff aspirations, if quarterback Hutson Mason proves to be a serviceable replacement for Aaron Murray. Quarterback turnover in the SEC or not, Georgia can't afford such haphazard play in the secondary again.
5. Clint Trickett, QB, West Virginia
Trickett was named West Virginia's starter on Tuesday, meaning the kickoff game in Atlanta against Alabama will likely be started by two Florida State transfers who understandably couldn't beat out Jameis Winston (assuming Jacob Coker wins the Alabama job). Hopefully, his second year as a graduate transfer will be an improvement on what became a rather messy 2013 season for West Virginia, and a stagnant year for Dana Holgorsen's usually prolific offense.
Always a bit of an injury risk at only 175 pounds, Trickett started seven games last year, and he already won the job now despite sitting out spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery at the end of the season. He was the starting quarterback for West Virginia's one bright spot last year, the win over Oklahoma State in which he threw for 309 yards, but that was the game in which he hurt his shoulder, an injury he played through most of the rest of the season, which quickly became forgettable. In all, he completed 52.8 percent of his passes for 1,605 yards with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. There's still no Tavon Austin or Stedman Bailey walking back through the door, so much of Trickett's success will depend on new playmakers emerging at receiver. He won't have to do everything, with a solid backfield led by Pitt transfer Rushel Shell and senior Dreamius Smith, but Holgorsen's offenses are built to pass, pass and pass, and the drop from 8.1 yards per attempt in 2012 to 6.8 last year was pretty drastic, raising questions about Holgorsen's long-term security in Morgantown. Trickett is already a bit limited in terms of physical tools -- just as the receivers are no Austin or Bailey, he's no Geno Smith -- so staying healthy is a must, as we already saw last season.
6. Doran Grant and Armani Reeves, CB, Ohio State
Ohio State's most pressing concern is probably replacing four starters on the offensive line in front of Braxton Miller, but the lingering Achilles' heel is the secondary, which was a constant problem over the course of the 2013 season. The problem was especially magnified down the stretch, when the Buckeyes gave up 320 passing yards to Indiana, 451 to Michigan, 304 to Michigan State and 378 to Clemson in their final four games. Overall, star cornerback Bradley Roby didn't play up to his potential, and starting safety Christian Bryant missed the final nine games of the season, and the Buckeyes ended up being more vulnerable to big plays than usual.
Upset with the direction of the defense, Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash from Arkansas to serve as co-defensive coordinator with Luke Fickell. While the Buckeyes are loaded with stars on their defensive line (although it was a bit inconsistent last year), the big question mark remains on the back end. Roby, Bryant and safety C.J. Barnett are all gone, leaving a lot of pressure on Grant, a senior who started all 14 games last year, and new starter Armani Reeves, who steps up into a full-time role. The good news is that there aren't many top quarterbacks (aside from Christian Hackenberg and Connor Cook) on the schedule to really take advantage of any possible weaknesses in the Ohio State secondary, but still, progress is clearly necessary if the Buckeyes want to rebound from 2013's late-season disappointment and push for a playoff bid.
7. Trey Edmunds, RB, Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech's offensive woes the last few years weren't all on quarterback Logan Thomas' shoulders, although his inconsistency and lack of development obviously didn't help. But Thomas never had a dependable running game around him to share the load. By no means have the Hokies found Iowa territory in terms of bad running back luck, but the last few years have seen musical chairs at the position, with no reliable go-to back, since David Wilson's 1,700-yard 2011 season. Thomas led the Hokies in rushing in 2012, and last year Edmunds, as a freshman and the leading rusher, averaged only 4.1 yards per carry, with 675 yards and 10 touchdowns on 166 attempts.
The uncertainty continues entering the fall, where second-year coordinator Scot Loeffler is juggling his options at quarterback (Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer should be the front-runner) and at running back. Edmunds is the leader for the position, although he was absent during spring ball thanks to a broken leg suffered last November. He'll be joined by J.C. Coleman, who has seven starters in two years but has had only one standout game in two years and is undersized for a full role. And there's true freshman Marshawn Williams, who impressed in the spring and may be the future of the position.
Whoever wins the job in the long run is tasked with providing some level of consistency to a running game that ranked second-to-last in the ACC in both yards per game and yards per carry last season, contributing to a season-long struggle to convert third downs. And with Thomas' mobility gone, the onus on the running backs is even greater to jumpstart an aimless offense that has coincided with a 15-11 record the last two years.
8. Caleb Benenoch, OT, UCLA
UCLA Priority No. 1: Keep Brett Hundley on the field. Few players are more crucial to a team's playoff and conference championship hopes than Hundley, who has emerged as a Heisman frontrunner and potential top-10 draft pick heading into his junior season. Sure, this could go for a lot of left tackles -- Donovan Smith at Penn State protecting Christian Hackenberg, Spencer Drango at Baylor protecting Bryce Petty, etc. -- but UCLA in particular is faced with its highest expectations in years, as an expected playoff contender, and those expectations are tied entirely to the return of Hundley.
Brett Hundley has been fantastic in his two years as UCLA's starting quarterback. Last year, he completed 66.8 percent of his passes for 3,071 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions, while also leading the Bruins in rushing with 748 yards and 11 touchdowns. He's a big passer with excellent mobility and a strong arm, and his rise to starter alongside the arrival of coach Jim Mora proved to be a perfect match. Again, though, it's all about keeping him healthy. Through two years, Hundley has started all 27 games, despite the fact that he's been hit over and over, with UCLA ranking 11th in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed each of the last two years. Injuries were certainly a culprit last year, forcing unexpected reshuffling, but now the unit returns four starters, having to replace only All-America guard Xavier Su'a-Filo. Even with that big loss, the Bruins should be solid in the middle, with a rising star in Alex Redmond at one guard spot and Miami graduate transfer Malcolm Bunche at the other, plus two-year starter Jake Brendel at center. That leaves the spotlight on Hundley's blind side, where Benenoch slides after starting nine games at right tackle as a true freshman. If Benenoch pans out and UCLA can lower that sack number and stay healthier along the line, it'll be in much better shape to live up to the preseason hype, and everyone will be able to breathe easier about Hundley.
9. Dylan Thompson, QB, South Carolina
Thompson isn't an ordinary replacement starter. Because of Connor Shaw's various injuries over the last two years, Thompson has seen plenty of action, attempting 127 passes in 11 games in 2012 and 89 passes in 10 games last year. He played significant potions of two games in particular in 2013: In a road win at UCF, after Shaw left with an injury, he completed 15 of 32 passes for 261 yards with an interception. In a road win at Missouri with Shaw banged up, he completed 15 of 27 passes for 222 yards with an interception, but he was replaced by the less-than-100-percent Shaw down 17-0 in the third quarter. Shaw rallied the Gamecocks to a 27-24 double OT win, further cementing his legacy in South Carolina lore.
That game at Mizzou is what puts a weird sort of pressure on Thompson, who's now a senior after spending two years as a quality backup behind Shaw. Shaw was a smart player and a great improviser, resulting in a season in which he threw for 2,447 yards with 24 touchdown passes, six rushing touchdowns and only one interception as a senior. He was a bit unconventional, but he was a valuable playmaker at the college level, and until proven otherwise, that Missouri game will stick out as a red flag for Thompson. Thompson is a more traditional Steve Spurrier quarterback as a 6-foot-3, 219-pound drop-back type, and the good news is that his supporting cast is excellent, including four returning starters on the offensive line, one of the nation's best running backs in Mike Davis and a promising cast of wide receivers that includes Shaq Roland, Damiere Byrd and Pharoh Cooper. If Thompson comfortably settles into the starting role and emerges from Shaw's shadow, this could be a Gamecocks team good enough to challenge for Spurrier's first SEC title at South Carolina.
10. Gary Nova, QB, Rutgers
Rutgers desperately wants to make a splash in its first season in the Big Ten, but the general consensus seems to be that the Scarlet Knights are heading for a last-place finish in the Big Ten East, despite the return of 16 starters. Part of the reason is that the Rutgers defense has gone downhill since the departure of Greg Schiano, as they were one of only two teams nationally to allow 4,000 passing yards last season. But the offense under Kyle Flood obviously has a long way to go as well, which is why he turned to former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen to try to right the ship.
At the center is Nova, who completed 54.5 percent of his passes for 2,159 yards with 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 10 games in 2013 before getting benched for senior Chas Dodd the last three games. Over his last two games -- blowout losses to Cincinnati and UCF -- he completed only 29 of 72 for 2,077 yards, one touchdown and three picks. Now a senior, Nova -- who shared snaps in spring practice but is the favorite to win the job -- loses top wideout Brandon Coleman, as well as Quron Pratt, although there is still some talent left, notably led by tight end Tyler Kroft and running backs Paul James and Desmon Peoples. But with a tricky schedule that includes the Big Ten's heavyweights in the East, a tricky trip to pass-happy Washington State and cross-division games against Wisconsin and Nebraska, Rutgers has to hope that Friedgen's influence will allow for a senior-year transformation for Nova behind center before LSU transfer Hayden Rettig is eligible to compete for the job next year.