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Ole Miss, UCLA and 8 other breakout teams for college football's 2014 season

Who are some teams that could turn heads in the first year of the College Football Playoff? Some have a lot of returning talent. Some took encouraging steps forward in 2013. And others will improve just by removing stumbling blocks and having better luck.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

1. Mississippi Rebels

2013 record: 8-5, 3-5 SEC

Ole Miss was a streaky team in 2013, winning its first three (including a blowout victory over Texas and a conference win at Vanderbilt) before losing three in a row to Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M. The Rebels were able to upset LSU to start a four-game winning streak, but lost two to end the season. They defeated Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl, giving them some momentum heading into another tough season in the SEC West.

The incredible 2013 recruiting class will be entering year two and will be expected to take over a bigger role. Donte Moncrief (59 receptions, 938 yards) will be headed to the NFL, which means former five-star recruit Laquon Treadwell (72 receptions, 608 yards) will be expected to star in the offense. Quarterback Bo Wallace (24 total touchdowns) will be back for his senior season.

Defense is where the Rebels really return some top players. Each of the team's five leading tacklers is back, including linebacker Serderius Bryant (78 tackles, 12.5 for a loss) and first-team All-SEC defensive back Cody Prewitt (71 tackles, six interceptions), who will be seniors. Also back are the Nkemdiche brothers, former No. 1 prospect Robert (34 tackles, eight for a loss) and older brother Denzel (35 tackles, one fumble forced).

2. North Carolina Tar Heels

2013 record: 7-6, 4-4 ACC

You'd be hard-pressed to find a team with a better second-half turnaround than UNC's. After a 1-5 start, the Tar Heels won five in a row and six of their last seven, including a 24-point beatdown of Boston College and a 80-20 win over Old Dominion that was so uncontested that the fourth quarter was shortened.

UNC loses key offensive pieces in tight end Eric Ebron and left tackle James Hurst, but quarterback Marquise Williams really came into his own towards the latter part of the season, especially after being thrust into the role of starter after Bryn Renner's injury. Renner's gone now, and Williams ended up with 21 total touchdowns on the year while only starting in six games.

Even without Ebron, two huge offensive weapons return for Williams -- rising junior Quinshad Davis and rising sophomore Ryan Switzer. Davis led the team with 10 touchdown grabs and was the Tar Heels' leading receiver behind Ebron, while Switzer tied the NCAA single-season record and the UNC career record (as a freshman!) for punt return touchdowns with five.

3. Kansas State Wildcats

2013 record: 8-5, 5-4 Big 12

Kansas State could give the Tar Heels a run for their money in terms of teams with second-half hot streaks. The Wildcats opened a disappointing 2-4 following their unexpected run to the Big 12 title in 2012, including a loss to eventual FCS champion North Dakota State. Kansas State ended up nearly winning out, blowing out Texas Tech and Michigan, with a 10-point loss to Oklahoma as the only defeat the Wildcats suffered in the second half of the season.

Leading rusher John Hubert graduates, but quarterback Daniel Sams returns and looks ready to take a larger role in the offense. The also-returning Jake Waters (18 touchdowns, nine interceptions) is the starter at the position, but Sams ran for 807 yards and 11 touchdowns in a more specialized role. The Cats also bring back Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year Ryan Mueller and All-America weapon Tyler Lockett.

Football Outsiders' F/+ also likes the Wildcats -- they were the second highest-rated eight-win team in the country, behind Georgia, and had one of the most efficient offenses in the nation. And if you learned one thing from the 2012 college football season, it's this: never count out Bill Snyder. You could've also learned that from many other seasons.

4. Houston Cougars

2013 record: 8-5, 5-3 AAC

You can slot Houston right alongside UCF, East Carolina, Tulane and Cincinnati as the teams to watch in the American in 2014. The Cougars were undefeated into mid-October in 2013, with a one-point loss to BYU the only thing between them and an 8-0 start. Once they were faced with the tougher opponents in the AAC, they struggled a bit, losing games to UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati -- but none by more than a touchdown. Houston finished the year 8-5, with its most impressive wins coming over Rice, Rutgers and SMU.

Houston returns nearly everyone from that squad, including quarterback John O'Korn. As a true freshman in 2013, O'Korn threw for 28 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions, showing great decision-making for a first-year player. He's got room to improve on his accuracy (he completed 58.1 percent), but he averaged a solid 7.0 yards per attempt and will see most of his playmakers return.

That includes former high-profile recruit Deontay Greenberry, who led the team with 82 receptions for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns and will be entering his junior season with the Cougars. Second-leading receiver Daniel Spencer (52 catches, 768 yards, six touchdowns) will be back for his senior year, and three starters on the offensive line will return.

What separates Houston from some of the other possible contenders in the AAC that return major offensive parts (like East Carolina, which brings back Shane Carden and Justin Hardy) is what the team brings back on its improving defense. The Cougars bring back all four starters on the defensive line, all three linebackers and both of their safeties, as well as all of their key defensive reserves (save one). Houston returns three 100-tackle contributors (Efrem Oliphant, Derrick Mathews and Trevon Stewart) and safety Adrian McDonald, who led the team with six interceptions.

O'Korn will continue to grow with the options he has around him, and if the defense can keep up, the Cougars will be a team to watch in 2014.

5. Northwestern Wildcats

2013 record: 5-7, 1-7 Big Ten

Remember when Northwestern was ranked? After a 4-0 start, the Wildcats looked like serious Big Ten contenders and definite candidates for a bowl game. Even after their 40-30 loss to Ohio State (in which the score was boosted by the Buckeyes' last-second fumble recovery for a touchdown), Northwestern looked like a team that would give the major players trouble for the rest of the year.

Then, injuries struck. The Wildcats were blown out 35-6 by Wisconsin, then managed to lose four straight games by a touchdown or less (including two in overtime periods). By early November, 20 Northwestern players were injured (including 13 key players), and the Wildcats ended up missing a bowl game due to losses in their first seven conference games.

Luck has to turn around -- both injury luck and fourth-quarter luck. Can the Wildcats turn around too? Leading rusher Treyvon Green (5.3 yards per carry, eight touchdowns), quarterback Trevor Siemian (7.2 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns), receivers Christian Jones (54 receptions, 12.4 yards per catch) and Tony Jones (55 receptions, 11.5 yards per catch), linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo (106 tackles, four interceptions) and safety Ibraheim Campbell (74 tackles, four interceptions) all return for their senior seasons, plus the whole offensive line is back.

Northwestern will also benefit from the structural change in its conference, as Michigan and Michigan State will be replaced by Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin in the Wildcats' division.

6. Maryland Terrapins

2013 record: 7-6, 3-5 ACC

Speaking of luck, the Terrapins need a good dose of it swinging their way as well.

After the now-infamous quarterback injuries (four of them, to be exact) that befell the Terps in 2012, forcing them to start a scout team linebacker in the position, Maryland was perhaps even more hurt in 2013. Starting wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, the two most important parts of the offense, missed about half of the season, while starting cornerbacks Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson, considered the strongest parts of the defense, both missed nearly all of the year. Starting quarterback C.J. Brown had injury issues until mid-November. Myriad other injuries took out the Terps' starting running back, tight end, five of six key linebackers (including one for the season) and one of their starting safeties.

Nearly everyone returns for the Terrapins, who had just five contributing seniors on the 2013 team. Brown will be a sixth-year quarterback as Maryland moves to the Big Ten, and the offensive line will be improved, with at least two high-profile recruits expected to come in and start from day one. The defense will be better as it enters the third year of newly extended coordinator Brian Stewart's scheme, and running back Wes Brown will return after a suspension.

Maryland won't have it easy -- its first conference home game will see Ohio State travel to Byrd Stadium -- but the Terps could make some noise in the Big Ten if they stay healthy. If recent years are any sign, that's a big if.

7. TCU Horned Frogs

2013 record: 4-8, 2-7 Big 12

TCU started the season ranked, but recorded two 10-point losses (to LSU and Texas Tech) in its first three games. The Horned Frogs ended up 4-8, but lost four of those games by three points or fewer, including contests against the top two teams in the Big 12 -- Oklahoma (20-17) and Baylor (41-38 in the season finale).

The Frogs lose starting quarterback Casey Pachall and multiple offensive linemen, but they have been prepared for the senior passer's departure. Rising junior Trevone Boykin has filled in for Pachall over each of the past two seasons, and despite some struggles he has recorded 32 total touchdowns over that time (which amounts to a little more than one full season of work). Leading rusher B.J. Catalon (5.3 yards per carry) returns, as do Boykin's top nine weapons.

But the strength, as usual with TCU, can be found on the defensive side of the ball. Each of the team's top four tacklers returns, including linebacker Paul Dawson (91 tackles, 10 for a loss) and safety Chris Hackett (88 tackles, three interceptions). Joining Hackett in the defensive backfield is fellow safety Sam Carter (five interceptions, 7.5 tackles for a loss), while Jon Lewis and Terrell Lathan (18 combined tackles for a loss) make up a fearsome interior to the defensive line.

8. Florida Gators

2013 record: 4-8, 3-5 SEC

The Gators can't have all this talent and just be really, really bad again, right? They started the year 4-1 with a tight loss to Miami, but lost each of their last seven games (including a defeat to FBS Georgia Southern) for one of the worst seasons in school history.

There are reasons for hope, Florida fans. The team that might've been even more injured than Northwestern and Maryland will have a refortified front seven and offensive line. New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper helped establish a dangerous, diverse spread attack at Duke. The team returns each of its four top rushers, and quarterback Jeff Driskel should be back and healthy for his redshirt junior year.

The defense should be phenomenal, with first-team All-SEC freshman Vernon Hargreaves III (three interceptions, 11 passes broken up) set to be joined by blue-chip prospect Jalen Tabor (Florida will likely enter 2014 with a top-10 freshman class for the third year in a row). At linebacker, Dante Fowler Jr. is among the nation's best at getting into the backfield, with 10.5 tackles for a loss in 2013.

In terms of the 2014 SEC schedule, Florida hosts Kentucky, LSU, Missouri and South Carolina while traveling to play Alabama, Tennessee and Vanderbilt (and Georgia in Jacksonville). All but three of the Gators' games will be played in the state of Florida.

9. UCLA Bruins

2013 record: 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12

The Bruins were boosted by two bits of news this offseason: quarterback Brett Hundley will return for another year and head coach Jim Mora spurned reported interest from Washington and Texas to stay in Los Angeles. As a 10-win power-conference team in 2013, UCLA doesn't exactly fit the bill of the rest of our breakout picks, but considering how tough the Pac-12 is, it's easy for a 10-win team to get overlooked.

After a 5-0 start, UCLA's title dreams in 2013 were shot after back-to-back losses to Stanford and Oregon, both by heavy margins. The Bruins ended up losing to each of the three top teams in the Pac-12, falling in November to Arizona State, but rebounded nicely with blowout wins over USC and Virginia Tech to end the season.

The Bruins have a lot to replace in the front seven, including potential top-five draft pick Anthony Barr. The star of the defense could quickly become linebacker and part-time running back Myles Jack, the Pac-12's top freshman on both offense and defense. And UCLA had 16 All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention players in 2013, suggesting more individual breakouts are on the way.

Scheduling is in the Bruins' favor -- they have an early neutral-site game against Texas (in Texas) to establish some national momentum, and get Oregon, USC and Stanford at home (with Arizona State and Washington as their only tough conference road games). In fact, nearly all of the end of the season could be played at the Rose Bowl for the Bruins, if everything goes according to plan:

10. Michigan Wolverines

2013 record: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten

It's like Florida, but with a bowl game! Michigan was awful down the stretch, winning two of its last eight games after starting 5-0, and those wins came against Indiana and Northwestern (in triple overtime).

But like the Gators, the Wolverines upgraded at offensive coordinator, nabbing Doug Nussmeier from Alabama.

Also like Florida, they have a returning quarterback recovering from injury in Devin Gardner. Gardner is a bit more of a known quantity than the Gators' Jeff Driskel, missing just the bowl game in 2013. He had 32 total touchdowns on the year, and despite turnover issues could be considered an unsung hero of sorts for the Wolverines. He'll get back All-Big Ten tight end Devin Funchess.

Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson should provide a strong rushing trio, while rising junior Blake Countess (six interceptions) is one of the top cornerbacks in the country. Michigan has been recruiting at such a high level recently -- with 2014's class potentially the Wolverines' third top-10 haul in a row -- that you have to think it turns around at some point for Brady Hoke. With Nussmeier running the offense and a fifth-year quarterback behind center, this could be that point.

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