Mailbag: New head coaches; the Pac-12 title matchup; UGA title run?
Texas, USC, Washington and Penn State are all among the programs with new head coaches. Which new head man figures to get off to the best start in Year One? That question and more in this week's mailbag.
Here is this week's mailbag. As always, if you have questions send them to me via Twitter to @BFeldmanCBS:
From @OhBriiiian: what first year coach has the best chance to succeed?
Well, it really depends on how you define "succeed" since it means different things at different places. Of the coaches who took over at big programs, the guy who goes into the job with the steepest incline is Penn State's James Franklin -- given the NCAA scholarship sanctions that program will be dealing with for the next five years as the roster restrictions play out. Some people assume that once the NCAA penalties expire, your program is at full strength and in the same place as everyone else in their league, but it's not. Depth and roster balance get really out of whack as USC is finding out. I still believe Franklin will prove to be a home run hire for Penn State, but in the short term, depth issues and limited talent to surround standout QB Christian Hackenberg will keep the Nittany Lions from challenging Ohio State and Michigan State for the Big Ten title.
A few weeks ago, I said I thought Washington and Chris Petersen would win 10 games this season and gave a variety of reasons. (Keep in mind they do play 13 regular-season games.) But that prediction was made before the news broke about projected starting QB Cyler Miles, whose career is very much in jeopardy. Still, even if Miles is off the team and Petersen has to go in a different direction, I was leaning to the Huskies winning the most games of anyone playing for a first year coach, but now think it might be the U-Dub's former coach that wins the most games in 2014.
Steve Sarkisian has a good chance to get to 10 wins this season. Sarkisian inherits some very good front-line talent at USC, especially on defense led by All-American DT Leonard Williams and experienced LB Hayes Pullard. The offense has another All-American candidate at wideout in Nelson Agholor, a deep backfield featuring Buck Allen and a good leader with plenty of experience at QB (Cody Kessler). The biggest question mark is the O-line. It is very suspect.
USC also avoids facing the Pac-12 favorite Oregon but has games against the conference's three worst teams: Cal, Utah and Colorado. That's a nice break. The Trojans have to travel to UCLA, but then get Notre Dame at home. My prediction for their regular season: 10-2.
As for the other new head coach under the big spotlight, Texas' Charlie Strong, I see the Longhorns a little below the first two. UT does have 13 starters back, featuring some excellent running backs but the QB situation is very murky given David Ash's health issues. (I'll have a lot more about incoming freshman QB Jerrod Heard next week in the blog.) Strong's impact on the D should be significant though, and there are some good pieces to work with in Austin. We'll find out a lot more about UT in Week Three when the Horns face a very good UCLA team in Arlington. My hunch is the Bruins and Brett Hundley will be too much for Texas, who I see winning eight or nine games this fall.
From @HistoryofMatt: Does Pruitt's arrival in Athens make UGA the biggest wild card in the SEC? Can Hutson Mason pull a Tee Martin for Georgia?
We talk a lot about the head coaching hires but often the assistant coach moves play a big role who actually wins conference titles and which head coaches keep their jobs. Ask Michigan State fans how big it was for the Spartans that Mark Dantonio hired Pat Narduzzi to coach defense or Dabo Swinney what Chad Morris' arrival did for Clemson football and his career.
Jeremy Pruitt brings a lot of cache to Athens, as Dawgs fans know. The Georgia defense seemed to underachieve two years ago and was banged up and inexperienced last season under Todd Grantham. And yes, that D was a big reason why finished outside the Top 25 last year. Enter Pruitt, who just helped FSU to a national title thanks to the nation's No. 1 scoring defense and No. 3 total defense. The Dawgs will still run a 3-4, but some of the terminology is a bit different. Jordan Jenkins is playing the "Jack" ... regardless, he is going to be a force either way in 2014.
Having Jenkins and eight other starters back, bodes well for Pruitt. The defense should be improved.. How much remains to be seen. Pruitt inherited a loaded D with a bunch of studs in the secondary at FSU. I don't know if he has as many playmakers back there in Athens but this should still be one of the better defenses in the SEC.
As outstanding as the skill guys are in Athens -- RBs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are superb and wideouts Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley are playmakers, I still expect Georgia to miss Aaron Murray's presence in 2014.
Mason, a fifth-year senior, got some experience late in the season after Murray was injured. UGA was 1-1 against Ga. Tech and Nebraska in his two starts. Will he be able to deliver some clutch plays when this offense needs it on third downs? We'll see. But I do expect the Dawgs opening the season with a strong win over Clemson in Athens as the Tigers deal with replacing Tajh Boyd and some stud receivers. Based on the strength of the skill talent in Athens and the experience of the D, I feel like Georgia has a little edge over South Carolina in the SEC East with Florida being much improved to round out the top three, but I don't see the Dawgs ready to crack the Top 5 in 2014.
Getting back to your question about "wildcards" in the SEC, there are so many of them out there this off-season due in large part to all the good QBs who have moved on. To me, the biggest wildcard in the SEC will be a different former FSU guy, new Alabama QB Jacob Coker for many of the reasons I detailed here. Three other wild cards to watch in the SEC this fall: new Florida OC Kurt Roper and how he develops Jeff Driskel; the influx of young defensive talent in College Station as Texas A&M DC Mark Snyder tries to improve what was a dreadful unit and . . .
From @Whoodaatt: Who do you think will be the starting QB for LSU next season?
I'm really curious to see the college career of early enrollee Brandon Harris unfold. The Louisiana native's rise is incorporated a little into my upcoming quarterback book, so I've spent some time around him and talked to folks who've worked with him. His arm is fantastic and his body has really developed quite a bit over the past year as he's matured.
I know LSU OC Cam Cameron is very, very excited about Harris. That said. Anthony Jennings also is gifted and more seasoned. My hunch is Jennings begins the season as the starter--the Tigers have a challenging opener against Wisconsin in Houston, but that Harris also plays.
After the game against the Badgers, LSU has four consecutive home games with only a Sept. 20 visit from Miss. State being much of a contest before back-to-back road trips to very hostile environments (Auburn and Gainesville).
I could see Harris taking over the starting job by midseason, but maybe I'm not giving Jennings enough credit here. It's also tricky in that the new QB will have to come in without the luxury of having two stud wideouts (Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry) to lean on.
From @DylanDay06: Who plays in the Pac-12 title game this year?
My prediction is it'll be UCLA at Oregon and the Ducks, with the best offense in the country--led by the guy I think will take home the Heisman this year Marcus Mariota--will win the conference.
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