Ten predictions for 2014

  • Mark Schlabach [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPN.com | January 8, 2014

The BCS era ended Monday night, with No. 1 Florida State defeating No. 2 Auburn 34-31 in the final BCS National Championship, halting the SEC's string of seven consecutive national titles.

This coming season, college football's national championship will be decided by a new four-team playoff, and it's never too early to look ahead.

While I have missed some predictions over the last few seasons, I did get quite a few things right in 2013. I told you Auburn would be the most improved team in the country, although I'll admit I didn't think Gus Malzahn would guide the Tigers to the title game in his first season as their coach.

Here's what else I got right: The Big Ten would (fortunately) rename its divisions, USC would fire coach Lane Kiffin, Ohio State wouldn't go undefeated again, and Atlanta and Dallas would be the big winners in the new playoff. I correctly had Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Stanford and Ohio State playing in BCS bowl games, although their specific destinations weren't exactly accurate.

Here's what I got wrong (among many other things): Alabama defeating Oregon to win its third consecutive BCS national title; Michigan, Notre Dame and Texas playing in BCS bowl games; and Purdue's Darrell Hazell being the next big thing (whoops).

Well, it never hurts to keep trying, so here are 10 bold predictions for 2014:

Jameis Winston
AP Photo/David J. PhillipThe SEC's biggest roadblock to reclaiming a national title: Florida State QB Jameis Winston.

1. An SEC team won't win a national championship for the second season in a row: After incorrectly picking USC to win a national championship in 2012, I told myself I'd pick an SEC team every year until someone knocked the league from its lofty perch. Well, Florida State finally did it by beating Auburn at the Rose Bowl on Monday night, and I think the Seminoles are going to be the team to beat again in 2014. With quarterback Jameis Winston coming back, FSU will be a popular choice as the No. 1 team in the country heading into this coming season.

The SEC is going to go through a transition in 2014 with so many experienced quarterbacks leaving. Among the high-profile passers moving on: Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, South Carolina's Connor Shaw and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, who is presumably leaving the Aggies to enter the NFL draft. There will be a lot of inexperienced SEC quarterbacks under center next season, so the high-scoring football that resembled the Big 12 in recent seasons should be a thing of the past.

2. Changes will be made to the targeting rule: College football's new targeting rule had a big -- and mostly positive -- effect on the game this past season, as officials tried to eliminate head-to-head collisions and above-the-shoulder hits on defenseless players to curtail the risks of concussions.

But the most controversial part of the new rule was that if a targeting penalty was overturned by replay, the offending player wasn't ejected from the game, but his team was still hit with a 15-yard penalty. The sport's rule-makers have to change the rule during the offseason to not only overturn an ejection, but also the 15-yard penalty if a foul wasn't actually committed.

3. Alabama's Derrick Henry will become the sport's next superstar: After watching Henry run for 100 yards in Alabama's 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, disappointed Crimson Tide fans had to be asking themselves why he hadn't carried the ball more this past season.

Henry, a 6-foot-3, 238-pound freshman from Yulee, Fla., looks like former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, only with a lot more speed. He carried the ball only 36 times this past season, presumably because he struggled in picking up blitzes in pass protection. But with T.J. Yeldon struggling to hang onto the football and Kenyan Drake falling out of favor with the coaches, Henry might be poised to become Alabama's No. 1 tailback in 2014.

4. There will still be controversy, even without the BCS: By the regular season's end in 2014, there will be two undefeated teams (let's say Florida State and Oregon) and a handful of one-loss teams. The Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC champions will be among the one-loss teams, and one of them will be left out of the playoff, causing its fans to voice their displeasure loudly.

Even with four teams making a playoff, fans of the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-best teams are going to be upset. And what's going to happen the first time two teams from one conference get into the playoff? Look at this past season. We can assume Florida State and Auburn would have been the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, respectively, but which teams would have been Nos. 3 and 4?

Alabama? The Tide finished 11-1 in the regular season but didn't even win the SEC West and didn't have a lot of meat on their résumé. Michigan State? The Spartans sure looked like one of the country's top four teams at the end of the season, but their overall résumé left a lot to be desired. Stanford? Sure, the Cardinal went 11-2, upset Oregon and won the Pac-12 title, but their loss at Utah would have been difficult to overlook. And what about Baylor? The Bears won the Big 12 and lost only at Oklahoma State, but they played the softest nonconference schedule among the contenders.

Even though the upcoming playoff is expanding to four teams, I'm guessing it's still going to be a big mess.

Charlie Strong
Erich Schlegel/Getty ImagesTexas coach Charlie Strong will turn the Longhorns into big winners once again.

5. Charlie Strong will produce a winner in his first season at Texas: Here's my safest prediction for this coming season: Strong, who left Louisville to replace Mack Brown at Texas, won't be taking a selfie next to the statue of UT booster Red McCombs inside Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium anytime soon. McCombs, one of UT's most powerful boosters and largest benefactors, criticized Strong's hiring, saying he would make a good assistant coach or maybe even a coordinator.

Strong, who went 37-15 in four seasons at Louisville, inherits a UT team that was criticized for its lack of toughness late in Brown's tenure. Strong figures to overhaul UT's strength and conditioning program, and he'll put a tougher and more physical team on the field. The Longhorns won't contend for a Big 12 title in Strong's first season, but they'll win nine games and will be ready to return to the sport's upper echelon once he identifies a capable quarterback in Year 2.

6. James Franklin will become Penn State's new coach: Franklin, who somehow guided Vanderbilt to back-to-back 9-4 seasons and bowl victories for the first time in school history, is the favorite to replace Bill O'Brien at Penn State. Franklin, 41, is a Pennsylvania native and played at East Stroudsburg University. Franklin has recruited exceptionally well at Vanderbilt, and would seem to be more equipped to do it at Penn State, which has a larger football budget and more fertile recruiting base.

How rare is it for an SEC coach to leave a school on his own accord? Franklin would become only the fourth SEC coach in the last 25 years to leave for another school, joining Dennis Franchione (Alabama to Texas A&M, 2002), Guy Morriss (Kentucky to Baylor, 2002) and Kiffin (Tennessee to USC, 2009).

7. Clemson and South Carolina will move their game to a parking lot: Perhaps no rival coaches exchange verbal jabs as much as Clemson's Dabo Swinney and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier. Spurrier is 6-2 against the Tigers during his nine-year tenure at South Carolina, and he loves reminding Swinney about his recent five-game winning streak in the series.

After South Carolina defeated Wisconsin 34-24 in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day, Spurrier said winning bowl games in Orlando was nice, and "that state championship isn't bad, either." Two days later, after Clemson beat Ohio State 40-35 in the Discover Orange Bowl, Swinney boasted about the Tigers becoming the first team from South Carolina to win a BCS bowl game.

The Gamecocks and Tigers might want to move their annual game to a beach in Charleston, S.C., or a parking lot outside a mill in Greenville, S.C. Spurrier would probably win, regardless of the setting.

8. Bobby Petrino will be back in big-time coaching: It looks like Petrino's exile from BCS leagues won't last very long. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, one of the best in the business, might be trying to make a splash after losing Strong. Western Kentucky's Petrino, who had a 41-9 record in four seasons with the Cardinals before bolting for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons in 2007, might be heading back to Louisville, which moves to the ACC next season. Talk about completing the (motor) cycle.

Bobby Petrino
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesCould Bobby Petrino return to big-time football for the 2014 season?

Of course, Petrino was unceremoniously dumped by Arkansas after wrecking his motorcycle and then lying to Hogs AD Jeff Long about the incident in April 2012. Petrino sat out the 2012 season and then was hired by WKU in December 2012. He had an 8-4 record in his first season with the Hilltoppers.

Other finalists for the Louisville job: Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi and current Louisville coordinators Vance Bedford and Shawn Watson.

9. Winston will win back-to-back Heisman Trophies: Winston was so good this past season, completing 66.9 percent of his passes for more than 4,000 yards with 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, that it's easy to forget it was his first season as a starter. He'll be even better as a sophomore, even if juniors like Kelvin Benjamin and Nick O'Leary enter the NFL draft.

Winston will become the first player since Ohio State's Archie Griffin to win two Heisman Trophies, then he'll become the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Other candidates for the 2014 Heisman Trophy: Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, Georgia tailback Todd Gurley, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight, Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.

10. Florida will make a bowl game: Perhaps no coach will have a hotter seat entering the 2014 season than Florida's Will Muschamp, who is coming off a 4-8 disaster, the Gators' first losing season since 1979. Florida gets back several injured starters, including quarterback Jeff Driskel, and will go 9-3 this coming season to save Muschamp's job.

Muschamp hired Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to revamp his offense, after the Gators ranked 112th nationally -- the third straight year they were 100th or worse among FBS teams. Florida lost its last seven games of the season and threw only four touchdown passes during its losing streak.

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