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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#35 Virginia Tech Hokies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#35

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Frank Beamer , 231-115-2 (27 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Scot Loeffler | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bud Foster

Virginia Tech is at a crossroads of sorts. The Hokies went to the ACC championship game six times in their first eight seasons in the league. Since then, Virginia Tech is 12-12 in the league. A 6-6 season saved the Hokies from missing the postseason for the first time since 1992. A bowl win preserved a streak of 22 consecutive winning seasons. The streaks look good in the media guide, but Virginia Tech will be hard-pressed to reverse its slide.

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Previewing Virginia Tech’s Offense in 2015
 

It’s now-or-never for the Hokies under third-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, who spent Year 1 introducing his system and Year 2 dealing with youth and injuries. All the major players are back, including quarterback Michael Brewer, a Texas Tech transfer whose good moments last year were often negated by bad ones. He threw for 18 touchdowns and 2,692 yards but also 15 interceptions, 11 coming in the first six games.

He’s more experienced now, as are his offensive weapons. Receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips combined for 96 catches, 1,207 yards and nine touchdowns as freshmen, and Bucky Hodges shattered all the school’s tight end records with 45 catches, 526 yards and seven touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. Just who will carry the ball remains a question, with Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams coming off ACL injuries (and McKenzie some legal issues). But 2013 leading rusher Trey Edmunds is healthy again, and J.C. Coleman showed he could carry the load after rushing for 468 yards in the final four games last year.

As always, the offensive line is a question, but coaches were encouraged by the starting five in the spring, particularly left guard Wyatt Teller, a bruiser who entered the starting lineup midway through last year and earned O-line MVP honors. If the line jells, the stable of young playmakers makes a jump, and Brewer can cut down his turnovers, the Hokies have a chance to churn out a decent offense for the first time in years. 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Virginia Tech’s Defense for 2015
 

The strength of Bud Foster’s group lies in the trenches and on the back end. The Hokies have four starting defensive linemen who have earned All-ACC recognition in their careers. Tackle Luther Maddy returns from a medical redshirt, paired with undersized but quick Corey Marshall on the interior. The ends are even more disruptive. Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem combined for 18.5 sacks and 33 tackles for a loss last year, the most productive D-line tandem in the ACC.

The secondary is in flux because of spring absences, but cornerback Kendall Fuller is a stud, an All-American who might be the best the program has produced. The big domino is cornerback Brandon Facyson, who missed last year with a stress fracture in his leg, which he reinjured at practice in December. If he returns to form, it allows Tech to move the versatile Chuck Clark to his more natural position at safety. This group gave up a ton of big plays last year, but it’s as talented as ever.

The biggest question mark is at linebacker, where Deon Clarke returns but Andrew Motuapuaka is a first-year starter. Nevertheless, the Hokies are set up to rush the passer and cover, two hallmarks of Foster’s defenses over the years. 

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Virginia Tech’s Specialists for 2015
 

Kicker Joey Slye (20-of-28 on field goals) has the leg to go 50-plus if his accuracy comes around. Punter A.J. Hughes had offseason back surgery, partly explaining why his average fell from 44.1 in 2013 to 39.9 last season. Greg Stroman nearly broke half a dozen punt returns for touchdowns last year, although the stagnant kick return game needs a jumpstart.

Final Analysis
 

Virginia Tech is 22–17 overall and a .500 team in the league since 2012, prompting the uncomfortable conversation about how much longer revered coach Frank Beamer will walk the sideline in Blacksburg. A return to prominence would quash that talk, and with 16 returning starters, including a promising group of up-and-coming playmakers on offense and Foster’s usual great defense, Virginia Tech has a chance to challenge in the Coastal Division again. Another middling season, however, will only intensify the chatter that perhaps it’s time for Beamer to pass the torch.

The Debate

Does Frank Beamer Rank Among the ACC's Best Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#39 NC State Wolfpack

NATIONAL FORECAST

#39

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Dave Doeren, 11-14 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Canada | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Huxtable

NC State flashed its potential in a wild 56-41 loss to Florida State on Sept. 27. The Wolfpack just had to wait until November to deliver on it. NC State was one of the first teams of 2014 to give FSU a scare last season, leading the Seminoles until the final 3:24 of the third quarter. NC State struggled after that game, losing four in a row at one point. After regrouping in the final five games, the Wolfpack though won more games after Nov. 1 — finishing 4-1 — than it won all of 2013. After improving from 3-9 to 8-5 in Dave Doeren’s second season, NC State has reason to believe the momentum can continue.

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Previewing NC State’s Offense for 2015
 

NC State couldn’t have asked for much more from quarterback Jacoby Brissett last year. The Florida transfer threw for 2,606 yards, ran for 529 more, had a total of 26 touchdowns and threw only five interceptions. Multiple times during the season, coach Dave Doeren cited Brissett as the main reason for the team’s improvement from 3–9 to 8–5. This year, the Wolfpack will want a little more consistency from the senior, who finished the 2014 season with a flourish after a midseason slump. 

The running game, which averaged 204.5 yards per game last season (the program’s best since 1992), is in great shape with the return of running backs Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes. Three highly touted recruits — Johnny Frasier, Reggie Gallaspy and Nyheim Hines — join the rotation and have the type of talent to make an immediate impact.

Hines might have more of a role as a pass catcher and in jet sweep packages. The Wolfpack are thin at receiver, but senior tight end David J. Grinnage has developed into a reliable red zone target. Two new starting tackles will have to get acclimated on the offensive line, which is a major concern.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing NC State’s Defense for 2015
 

Doeren and defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable had hoped to establish NC State’s base defense and win without a high volume of blitzes. After seven games, they changed their strategy, and the defense responded with its best performances of the season.

Defensive end Mike Rose and defensive tackles Justin Jones, B.J. Hill, Kenton Gibbs and Monty Nelson all got valuable reps last season and will help offset the loss of seniors T.Y. McGill, Thomas Teal and Art Norman. Sophomore Kentavius Street, the prize of his recruiting class in 2014, will get more snaps inside this season, while sophomore Bradley Chubb has been moved from linebacker to end.

Linebacker was a question mark heading into last season, especially after expected starter M.J. Salahuddin tore ligaments in his left knee in August and missed the whole season. But sophomores Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore found their legs, especially after Huxtable loosened up the defense and used more blitzing schemes after an early October loss to Boston College.

All five starters return in the defensive backfield, led by senior free safety Hakim Jones, who had a team-best 80 tackles, and junior cornerback Jack Tocho, who is the team’s best defender in pass coverage.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing NC State’s Specialists for 2015
 

The Wolfpack have to start over at all specialist positions after having the same kicker-punter-long snapper trio for four straight years. Freshman Kyle Bambard has to replace Niklas Sade, the school’s all-time leading scorer, at kicker. Bambard and freshman punter A.J. Cole both enrolled in January. The return game did not have much punch last year, but Doeren is excited about the potential of redshirt freshman receiver Maurice Trowell to return kickoffs and for Hines to help with punt returns.

Final Analysis 
 

NC State improved its win total by five games from 2013 to ’14. The Wolfpack hope to make another jump in 2015 with a veteran quarterback and seven starters back on defense. Another five-game improvement might be asking too much, but Doeren won’t put a ceiling on the program’s progress.

The key to moving the momentum forward again will be replacing main parts up front on both sides of the ball. But with the return of Brissett and a host of new talented recruits supplementing an already deep backfield, the Wolfpack have an opportunity to at least push Atlantic Division powers Florida State and Clemson.

The Debate

Where Does Jacoby Brissett Rank Among ACC QBs?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#38 Louisville Cardinals

NATIONAL FORECAST

#38

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Bobby Petrino, 50-13 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Garrick McGee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Grantham

Louisville has had more high-profile seasons than 2014, but the Cardinals deserve credit for a successful first season in the ACC. Louisville moved into a tougher conference and had a revolving door at quarterback, yet still found a way to win nine games, including a road trip to Notre Dame. The Cards did this with a top-10 defense and 10 NFL draft picks. Louisville is in Year 2 under Bobby Petrino and in the ACC, but the challenge may be more steep than it was a year ago.

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Previewing Louisville’s Offense in 2015
 

Bobby Petrino isn’t much closer to settling on a quarterback than he was before the 2014 season. Arguments can be made for Reggie Bonnafon (the best runner), Kyle Bolin (he beat Kentucky), Will Gardner (if he can get healthy) or Tyler Ferguson (solid spring). Most favor Bonnafon because of his athleticism and youth, but the Cardinals could feature the same revolving door as last season. 

Louisville lost three top receivers, so expect the Cards to run the ball early with Brandon Radcliff, who averaged 97 yards in the final three games against Notre Dame, Kentucky and Georgia. L.J. Scott and Jeremy Smith are solid backups. The coaches are also intrigued by Malin Jones, a transfer from Northwestern.

Who’s going to catch the football? The Cards are waiting for junior James Quick to fulfill the five-star hype he earned in high school. Quick struggled with drops and off-the-field issues last season. Two transfers must deliver at wide receiver — Ja’Quay Savage (Texas A&M) and Jamari Staples, who caught 31 passes for 458 yards and four scores at UAB last year. Tight end Keith Towbridge should blossom after splitting time with the departed Gerald Christian.

The offensive line needs work and experience after losing three starters. Center Tobijah Hughley is a former walk-on who earned a scholarship and a starting spot last season. Aaron Epps, a formidable run blocker, returns to anchor the right side. This could be a trouble spot in early games with Auburn and Clemson.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Louisville’s Defense in 2015
 

Petrino surprised by winning with defense last season, but the unit, which ranked in the top five nationally in total defense and scoring defense until melting down in the final two games, must replace seven starters.

The front seven remains formidable. Defensive ends Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei are solid run stoppers who can also pursue the quarterback. DeAngelo Brown is a 320-pound roadblock in the middle. The Cards added Devonte Fields, a former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year while at TCU who played in junior college last year. He could have a huge impact.

Linebackers James Burgess, Keith Kelsey and Keith Brown were among the highest-rated recruits signed by the previous staff. They’re experienced and can make plays. Expect Henry Famurewa or Finesse Middleton to step in at weak-side linebacker.

You’ll need a program to identify the secondary, but Petrino is not as concerned as most coaches would be. Why? Two replacements are safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and cornerback Shaq Wiggins, who practiced with Louisville last season after they were dismissed at Georgia. Harvey-Clemons is a possible first-round pick in 2016. Cornelius Sturghill, a redshirt freshman, should move into the other corner spot. Chucky Williams will battle Zykiesis Cannon at the other safety.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Louisville’s Specialists in 2015
 

Senior placekicker John Wallace needs 10 field goals to become the school’s all-time leader. Josh Appleby becomes the punter after three seasons as the backup. The return game didn’t give Louisville an edge last season. Petrino hopes that Staples (punts) and Williams (kickoffs) will fix that.

Final Analysis
 

Louisville has lost considerable talent and undergone a coaching staff change over the last two seasons. Those are warning signs the program could take a step back in 2015, especially with a schedule that includes Auburn and Clemson in two of the first three games. The Cardinals need a quarterback to emerge, receivers to step forward, three new offensive linemen to step up and a rebuilt secondary to deliver to keep winning big. That’s a lot to ask.

The Debate

Is Bobby Petrino the Best Coach in the ACC?

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