We're continuing our countdown to the top team in college football for 2014 and unveiling our teams in groups of eight, working backward from 128. Thus, the ninth batch of our rankings includes teams ranked 57th through 64th.
We'll include a look at each team's top players. Obviously, the better the team, the more "top players." Still, even teams that are going to struggle to win two or three games have players that are worth watching, and we'll let you know who they are.
Top players to watch: RB Alex Collins (5-foot-11, 215 pounds, sophomore); RB Jonathan Williams (6-0, 225, junior); CB Tevin Mitchel (6-0, 190, senior); DE Trey Flowers (6-4, 270, senior); DT Darius Philon (6-3, 285, sophomore); OT Brey Cook (6-7, 330, senior)
The outlook: The first order of business in Bielema's rebuilding effort has to be winning a conference game, something Arkansas was unable to do in Bielema's first season last year. The rushing tandem of Collins and Williams is dynamic, but the Arkansas passing attack couldn't keep defenses from stacking the front against the run last year, and will get more of the same this fall. Mitchel had a disappointing season last year at corner, and will look to rebound as one of Arkansas' better pro prospects.
Coach: Mark Hudspeth
2013 record: 9-4
Top players to watch: QB Terrance Broadway (6-2, 221, senior); DT Justin Hamilton (6-2, 310, senior); RB Alonzo Harris (6-1, 238, senior); G Daniel Quave (6-3, 324, senior); OT Mykhael Quave (6-5, 295, junior); WR Jamal Robinson (6-4, 205, senior)
The outlook: The Ragin' Cajuns have won nine games for three consecutive seasons. Broadway began his college career at Houston -- as a backup to Case Keenum -- and his dual-threat abilities are a great fit for Hudspeth's spread attack. He is a dangerous runner and a solid passer. Harris is a physical downhill runner who has 32 career TDs; backup TB Elijah McGuire also is a productive runner. Robinson -- who has good size and can run -- is one of the best receivers in the Sun Belt and gives ULL a legit deep threat. The Quave brothers play key roles for one of the best offensive lines in the Sun Belt. Daniel will be a four-year starter who has started 39 consecutive games; Mykhael is heading into his third season as a starter and has started 26 consecutive games. He was a guard in 2012, then moved to left tackle last fall. Hamilton is the best defensive lineman in the Sun Belt. He is stout at the point of attack but also managed to rack up four sacks last season. Even though there are some concerns in the defensive back seven, this is a deep, experienced team that is the prohibitive Sun Belt Conference favorite. Back-to-back games against Ole Miss and Boise State in September give the Ragin' Cajuns a chance to make some national noise. A 10-win season beckons. And so does a new job for Hudspeth.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald
2013 record: 5-7
Top players to watch: LB Chi Chi Ariguzo (6-3, 235, senior); SS Ibraheim Campbell (5-11, 205, senior); LB Collin Ellis (6-2, 230, senior); FS Traveon Henry (6-1, 200, junior); WR Christian Jones (6-3, 225, senior); RB Venric Mark (5-8, 175, senior); CB Nick VanHoose (6-0, 190, junior); C Trevor Vitabile (6-3, 300, senior); H-back Dan Vitale (6-2, 225, junior)
The outlook: Last season was a disappointment, especially because of a 1-7 record in conference play. A return to health by Mark, who missed all but three games with a variety of injuries, would help. He has 1,200-yard potential and is Northwestern's best big-play threat; he is both fast and quick, and is elusive as a runner, receiver and return man. Vitale is a good blocker and can be a dangerous receiver. Vitabile heads what is expected to be an OK offensive line and should vie for first-team All-Big Ten honors. Jones' size makes him an intriguing prospect, but he needs to play with more consistency (almost a quarter of his 54 receptions came in one game, when he had 13 catches against Illinois). Ariguzo has a shot to lead the Big Ten in tackles; he has some pass-rush ability and also had four interceptions last season. Ellis will play middle linebacker for the first time this season, and that should prove a good fit for his talents. Campbell will be a four-year starter; he is a big hitter who has eight picks and 21 pass breakups in his career. Henry has good size and runs well, but needs to show better ball skills. VanHoose is another who has good size and runs well; he will be a three-year starter and had three interceptions and 15 pass breakups in his first two seasons. A 3-0 start is possible, and if everything goes right, this team could win eight games. Still, there are questions about the running game -- is Mark really healthy? -- and the run defense. A six-win season is a distinct possibility.
Coach: David Bailiff
2013 record: 10-4
Top players to watch: CB Bryce Callahan (5-10, 180, senior); TE Connor Cella (6-3, 240, sophomore); DT Christian Covington (6-3, 295, junior); WR Jordan Taylor (6-5, 210, senior); OT Caleb Williams (6-3, 285, junior)
The outlook: The Owls are coming off just their third 10-win season in school history, but there are questions at quarterback and running back. Taylor has good size and speed -- he has the talent to vie for all-league honors. Will he have the stats, though? Cella looks to be a developing talent, and tight ends have had a big impact at Rice of late. Williams has started all but one game the past two seasons, and provides a physical presence on the right side. Callahan has excellent speed. He has 11 interceptions and 26 pass breakups in his career; he could stand to be more physical. Covington is the jewel, though. He is the most talented player in Conference USA and one of the top two defensive tackles outside the "Power Five" conferences. Covington, a Canadian, has good strength and athleticism, and also possesses some big-play ability; he has 10 sacks and 24 tackles for loss in his first two seasons. His dad, Grover Covington, is in the CFL Hall of Fame. Rice opens with back-to-back road games against Notre Dame and Texas A&M, but the schedule eases considerably after that. By the time the schedule toughens a bit again in late October, any rough edges to the offense should have been smoothed over. Rice could again win the C-USA West Division title; at the least, the Owls will be a prime contender. Rice never has gone bowling in three consecutive seasons; that will change this season.
61. Georgia Tech
Coach: Paul Johnson
2013 record: 7-6
Top players to watch: FS Jamal Golden (6-0, 193, junior); NT Adam Gotsis (6-5, 285, junior); SS Isaiah Johnson (6-2, 213, senior); G Shaquille Mason (6-1, 311, senior); LB Quayshawn Nealy (6-1, 236, senior)
The outlook: Tech seems to have plateaued under Johnson, going 28-25 in the past four seasons. The Yellow Jackets still are going to bowls, but that's really not that hard nowadays. His triple-option offense has lacked a top-flight quarterback of late, and on paper, this starting offensive backfield might be the most underwhelming of Johnson's seven-season tenure. The squatty Mason is a nice building block up front; he will be a three-year starter and is an effective blocker on sweeps and the like. Gotsis, an Australian, has good quickness for his size and more than held his own last season, his first as a starter. He had 38 tackles, including 14.5 tackles for loss. Nealy is one of the better linebackers in the ACC; he is solid against the run and had two picks last season. The Golden-Johnson safety duo has a chance to be one of the top three in the ACC. Golden missed all but three games last season, while Johnson missed the whole year. Both are heady and instinctive athletes, and Golden doubles as a dangerous return man. A 3-0 start seems extremely likely, but then come five consecutive tough ACC games. If Tech can go 3-2 in that stretch, it has a chance to win the Coastal Division title. But going 1-4 or 0-5 seems just as likely. A lot obviously depends on how well a revamped offensive backfield performs.
62. Oregon State
Top players to watch:QB Sean Mannion (6-5, 220, senior), OL Isaac Seumalo (6-3, 305, junior), DE Dylan Wynn (6-2, 260, senior), CB Steven Nelson (5-11, 192, senior)
The outlook:The race to replace all-everything receiver Brandin Cooks has been under way since the spring, and the Beavers' coaching staff is confident they have enough quality pass-catchers to spread the ball around more this season. The line and running game should be solid, and seven starters are back on defense. Oregon State should at least be able to match last year's record, but certainly has enough talent to post a better record thanks to leadership from players such as Mannion.
Coach: Jerry Kill
2013 record: 8-5
Top players to watch: OT Josh Campion (6-5, 317, junior); RB David Cobb (5-11, 229, senior); DE Theiren Cockran (6-6, 255, junior); G Zac Epping (6-2, 318, senior); TE Maxx Williams (6-4, 250, sophomore); LB Damien Wilson (6-2, 249, senior)
The outlook: Last season's wins total was the Golden Gophers' highest since they won 10 in 2003, and it was just the fourth time Minnesota won as many as eight games since 1967. Minnesota has been all about the run offensively, and that is not going to change. Cobb is a 1,000-yard back, and though he lacks elite speed, he is tough, elusive and can get around the corner; he also heads a nice group of tailbacks. All those tailbacks will run behind what should be a physical, aggressive line. Campion has started 26 consecutive games at right tackle but might move to guard to replace Caleb Bak, who had to give up football in June because of concussions. Epping has started 34 consecutive games and is a big-time run blocker. Williams is talented as both a receiver and a blocker, but he almost assuredly is going to be underutilized as a receiver this fall because Minnesota doesn't look as if it has a competent passing quarterback; his dad, Brian, played for 10 seasons at center for the New York Giants and was a first-round pick out of Minnesota in 1989. Cockran, from Miami, is a still-emerging talent. He had 7.5 sacks last season and has the skill set to get into double digits this fall. He has good speed off the edge and is a big hitter. Wilson strictly is a run-stuffing middle 'backer, but what team can't use one of those? He's a physical thumper. A 3-1 non-conference start seems likely, but the Gophers better make some hay in conference play in late September and October because there is a brutal closing stretch (Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin).
Coach: Scott Shafer
2013 record: 7-6
Top players to watch: LB Dyshawn Davis (6-2, 221, senior); FS Durell Eskridge (6-3, 203, junior); OT Sean Hickey (6-5, 303, senior); QB Terrel Hunt (6-3, 233, senior); LB Cameron Lynch (5-11, 226, senior)
The outlook: Shafer's first season was a success. The Orange went to its second consecutive bowl and finished 4-4 in league play in its first season in the ACC. Hunt is a solid dual-threat guy who needs to show more consistency in running the preferred fast-paced attack, but there is no proven feature back and an underwhelming group of receivers. Hickey is a star and should be one of the top five senior tackles nationally. He is a road-grader in the running game and has improved in pass protection each season. Davis and Lynch are a nice duo at linebacker. Lynch is a great athlete with big-play ability, and Davis -- though he slumped last season -- is a good all-around 'backer. Eskridge is a guy to watch. He was an important two-way starter on a state championship team at Miami's Central High, and has great size and good speed. He led the Orange in tackles (78) and interceptions (four) last season, and still isn't a finished product. A 2-0 start looks assured, but things toughen considerably after that, including this three-game gauntlet in late September/early October: Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State. The Orange also travel to Clemson. Hunt needs some help at the skill positions, and if he gets it, Syracuse should go bowling again. This team is more talented than last season's, but the record might not show it.