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#99 South Florida Bulls



American Athletic PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Willie Taggart, 6-18 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Willie Taggart | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Allen

South Florida has yet to enjoy much success in the American Athletic Conference under Willie Taggart. The third-year coach will try and snap the Bulls' postseason drought in 2015, but only has eight returning starters to help him to accomplish this. South Florida also will have new coordinators in place on both sides of the ball in what could be a make-or-break season for its head coach.

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Previewing South Florida’s Offense for 2015

After struggling for two seasons under Willie Taggart’s smash-mouth style, the South Florida Bulls have changed to an up-tempo attack, heavy on spread principles and getting their skill players open in space. But who will run the show? After the transfer of drop-back quarterback Mike White, sophomore Quinton Flowers seems the best candidate because of his quick feet, improved accuracy and quick thinking. Senior Steven Bench could figure into the equation, but he has been mistake-prone.

Consistency would be welcomed. Taggart has used five different starting quarterbacks in two seasons.

The quarterback’s biggest job will be to get the ball to running back Marlon Mack, the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year in 2014. Mack galloped to 1,041 yards and nine TDs, including a program-record 275 yards in his debut. Mack is an electrifying open-field runner, but he’s more impressive in displaying patience to read his blocks and aggressiveness in hitting the hole.

Opportunities abound at wide receiver, where junior Rodney Adams has the most experience and sophomore Ryeshene Bronson displays the most potential. Meanwhile, it’s the last chance for senior tight end Sean Price, a former four-star recruit who has fallen short of his potential due to injuries and inconsistency.

There are spots to fill along the offensive line, especially at center as three-year starter Austin Reiter has departed. The rapid-fire offensive pace will also be an adjustment for the guys up front.

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

Previewing South Florida’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

After South Florida’s defense plunged to a No. 69 national ranking and twice allowed 589 yards in a game, there’s a new look with former Ole Miss linebackers coach Tom Allen taking over as coordinator. Allen has implemented a 4-2-5 formation, transforming a linebacker into a hybrid position and creating better chances to counter spread offenses.

The Bulls have playmakers in junior linebacker Nigel Harris, who led the nation in forced fumbles per game, and senior linebacker Tashon Whitehurst, who had a monster spring game (19 tackles), along with a steady leader in sophomore linebacker Auggie Sanchez. Big things are expected from redshirt freshman linebacker Jimmy Bayes.

Defensive backs are prevalent. Allen likes the aggressiveness of senior safety Jamie Byrd and the improvement of sophomore cornerback Tajee Fullwood, while sophomore cornerback Devin Abraham could be a future star.

The Bulls desperately need a better pass rush up front. Senior Eric Lee is the most experienced defensive end, while highly recruited big men junior Derrick Calloway and sophomore Deadrin Senat are expected to man the interior.

Previewing South Florida’s Specialists for 2015

The Bulls have one of the nation’s top punters in senior Mattias Ciabatti, who averaged a school-record 44.4 yards with 18 kicks of 50-plus yards and 22 downed inside the 20. Sophomore Emilio Nadelman will get first look at placekicker and must replace reliable Marvin Kloss, who was a Lou Groza Award finalist in 2013.

Final Analysis  

It has the look of a produce-or-else season for Taggart, who is 6–18 with the Bulls and must avoid the program’s fifth straight season without a bowl appearance. Taggart fired three assistant coaches immediately after last season, including both coordinators. He changed the offensive style of play, shocking observers who said Taggart was too stubborn.

Mack is a wonderful weapon. There are some building blocks on defense. But the schedule is formidable, and the Bulls must make a big jump to reach the postseason. The offense may be picking up the pace, but Taggart is running out of time.


#109 UConn Huskies



American Athletic East PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Bob Diaco, 2-10 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Frank Verducci | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vincent Brown, Anthony Poindexter

Bob Diaco enters his second season at UConn looking for answers after a 2-10 record in 2014. The Huskies need to find a spark on offense after averaging just 15.5 points per game last year. The strength of the team will be a defense with seven returning starters, featuring one of the top linebacking corps in the American Athletic Conference.

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Previewing UConn’s Offense for 2015

Coach Bob Diaco shifted his entire offensive staff with every coach moving to a different position after the unit was among the least productive in FBS last year, averaging a lowly 15.5 points per game. The Huskies also brought in veteran coach Frank Verducci as offensive coordinator to help develop a physical and ball-control running game.

The quarterback position rests with sophomore Bryant Shirreffs, who has the inside track over junior Tim Boyle after a strong spring. Shirreffs, who sat out last season as a transfer from NC State, is a dual-threat quarterback who has shown excellent running ability and impressed the staff with his arm on deep throws. Boyle remains in the hunt, though the junior struggled after being named the starter late last season and has thrown only one touchdown with 11 career interceptions. True freshman Tyler Davis, who enrolled in the spring, and junior college transfer Garrett Anderson will also be in the mix.

The other skill positions are in better shape. Sophomore running back Ron Johnson will be the featured back after leading the team in rushing a year ago with 429 yards and averaging 3.8 yards per carry. Fellow sophomore Arkeel Newsome is an explosive talent who will be used in the screen game and is capable of making plays in space. 

The top two wide receivers from last season must be replaced, but there is a budding star in junior Noel Thomas, an explosive downfield threat. He finished the year with 305 yards on 26 catches with four touchdowns. Sophomore Thomas Lucas is a physical receiver who has shown an ability to create separation. Dhameer Bradley remains a dangerous slot receiver.

There is reason for hope for a line that struggled last season for the nation’s 123rd-ranked offense. Mammoth 6'8", 310-pound junior Andreas Knappe and fellow junior Richard Levy return as bookend tackles. 

Order a copy of Athlon's National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing UConn’s Defense for 2015 

The Huskies return seven starters on defense, including their top four tacklers. There is experience and production at all levels as UConn enters its second year in the 3-4 alignment favored by Diaco. The defense is led by senior linebackers Marquise Vann and Graham Stewart. Vann led the team with 105 tackles, while Stewart had 94 tackles and led the Huskies with 10.5 tackles for a loss.

The secondary is strong. Andrew Adams returns at free safety after securing 96 tackles and four interceptions, and he’s joined by the physically gifted Obi Melinfonwu at strong safety. The corners — junior Jhavon Williams and sophomore Jamar Summers — are talented cover guys. Summers stepped in last season after an injury to NFL-bound Byron Jones.

The defensive line returns its top player in senior nose tackle Julian Campenni. Sophomore defensive end Folorunso Fatukasi is a player on the rise.

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

Previewing UConn’s Specialists for 2015

Junior Bobby Puyol returns at kicker after making 9-of-14 field goals, but he will be pushed by strong-legged freshman Michael Tarbutt. Justin Wain had an excellent first season as the punter with a 38.8-yard average and 17 punts inside the 20.

Final Analysis 

Coming off a 2–10 season in Diaco’s first year — the worst in their 11-year history in the FBS — the Huskies should be better across the board. The Huskies have not made a bowl game in four years and possess a difficult non-conference schedule with games at BYU and Missouri and conference road games at UCF and Cincinnati. The defense should be very solid, but the Huskies will have to dramatically improve on offense to even be in contention for a bowl bid late in the season. 

The Debate

What Grade Does Bob Diaco Get for His Debut Season?

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#106 Tulsa Golden Hurricane



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Philip Montgomery, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Sterlin Gilbert, Matt Mattox | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bill Young, Brian Norwood

Philip Montgomery helped Art Briles engineer one of the nation’s top offenses at Baylor, and the veteran assistant finally gets his chance to run a program, replacing Bill Blankenship after a 2-10 record in 2014. The Golden Hurricane should have an explosive offense, but the defense gave up 39.3 points per game last year.

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Previewing Tulsa’s Offense for 2015 

Philip Montgomery has long been an admirer of Tulsa football. The former Baylor offensive coordinator knew about the school’s recent history of conference championships and bowl triumphs. So when the university approached him to be a head coach who could revitalize both an offense and a fanbase, he was anxious for the challenge.

“There’s a ton of positive energy around this campus and the community,” says Montgomery, who inherits a program with only five wins over the past two seasons. “They’ve won conference championships here. They’ve won a lot of games, and we want to help get them back to that level.”

Points are necessary in the high-scoring American Athletic Conference, and at Tulsa, everything will focus on the quarterback. Junior Dane Evans and true freshman Chad President, an early enrollee, spent the spring learning Montgomery’s system. Evans ranked second in the American in passing yards per game (258.5) in 2014. President, a former Baylor commit, ran a similar offense during a prolific high school career.

“We put a lot of pressure on our quarterback … those guys have to have a great understanding of what we do,” Montgomery says.

The quarterback will have weapons at running back and wide receiver. Senior Zack Langer was second in the conference in rushing yards (80.1 ypg). The passing attack will welcome back wide receiver Keevan Lucas, a junior who had 101 receptions, 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Senior Keyarris Garrett (47 catches, 698 yards, five touchdowns) will be a key target as well.

“We have good core depth,” Montgomery says. “We just need to put them in position to make plays and be successful in what we do.”

Previewing Tulsa’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Veteran coach Bill Young — Tulsa’s new defensive co-coordinator — has plenty of work to do. He inherits a unit that ranked 114th in the nation in total defense (486.8 ypg) and 119th in scoring defense (39.3 ppg). The Golden Hurricane allowed fewer than 30 points only once last season, in a 38–28 win over SMU.

There may be no quick fixes, but Young has a foundation upon which to build. The defensive line returns All-AAC second-team end Derrick Alexander, who had a team-high 12 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks last year, and tackle Derrick Luetjen, who has started 24 straight games.

Linebacker Craig Suits was an FWAA Freshman All-American with 81 tackles, and he’ll be joined by Trent Martin, a junior who had eight tackles for a loss in only nine games last season.

The secondary is anchored by leading tackler Michael Mudoh, a hard-hitting safety with 113 stops last season.

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

Previewing Tulsa’s Specialists for 2015 

Punter Dalton Parks averaged 42 yards per boot last season. From that point, all jobs will be open. Preston Soper and Redford Jones are getting the first looks at kicker. D’Angelo Brewer has experience with kickoff returns, and Conner Floyd took back punts, but Montgomery indicates that many different players will be looked at to contribute at the spot.

Final Analysis 

Montgomery’s hiring will bring a much-needed boost to the Tulsa football program, which turned stagnant after winning the 2012 Conference USA championship. The offense should profit from the new system, which will get the football into the hands of many different playmakers. The Hurricane’s most important fix will be on defense. Stopping teams may once again be difficult for Tulsa, which will place the emphasis on the offense to score points. Patience will be important — for both the coaching staff and fans — during 2015’s rebuilding season. 

The Debate

What Grade Does Tulsa Get for Hiring Philip Montgomery?

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#104 Tulane Green Wave



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Curtis Johnson, 12-25 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eric Price | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jason Rollins, Lionel Washington

Tulane heads into Curtis Johnson’s fourth year looking to rebound after a 3-9 record in 2014. The Green Wave has 13 returning starters and a promising core of talent to build around, but the offense is looking for a spark after struggling last season.

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Previewing Tulane’s Offense for 2015

Strong-armed sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee is the clear starter but will need to improve significantly after a rough redshirt freshman debut season in which Tulane struggled across the board offensively. The Green Wave ranked 107th in total offense and 121st in points, failing to score more than 14 in eight of their last nine games.

Lee was part of the problem, tossing more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12). He threw for 262 yards and three scores in a 38–31 loss to Tulsa in the opener but cooled down quickly as defenses confused him and his freshman-laden receiving corps.

Almost all of Lee’s top targets are sophomores who learned on the job as true freshmen. Wide receiver Teddy Veal led the Green Wave with 40 catches for 381 yards. Tight ends Charles Jones and Trey Scott figured heavily in the offense during spring practice.

The running game, which ranked 91st nationally, should be a strength if it receives better blocking from a line that returns four starters. The three-headed backfield of speedy Sherman Badie (688 yards, 5.7 per carry), power runner Lazedrick Thompson (533 yards, four touchdowns) and well-rounded Dontrell Hilliard is one of the best in the American Athletic Conference. Badie broke off three runs of more than 70 yards.

Previewing Tulane’s Defense for 2015 

Order a copy of Athlon's National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
With several key starters returning, Tulane should be closer to its form from 2013 (when it ranked 22nd nationally in yards allowed) than last season (when it dipped to 55th). The key will be replacing safety Sam Scofield, who led the team in tackles the past two years, and cornerback Lorenzo Doss, who declared for the draft after picking off 15 passes in three seasons.

The talent is there. Darion Monroe, a four-star recruit in 2012, returns for his fourth year as a starter at safety. Sophomore cornerback Parry Nickerson outplayed Doss last season, making 51 tackles with a team-high six interceptions.

Diminutive linebacker Nico Marley (5'9", 200), the Conference USA Co-Freshman of the Year in 2013, had no letdown as a sophomore, registering a team-best 13.5 tackles for a loss. He galvanizes everyone around him to play harder.

The Wave are solid at tackle, where junior All-AAC candidate Tanzel Smart (47 stops) and sophomore Sean Wilson are entering their second year as a tandem. End is a concern. Royce LaFrance has all-conference ability but was up and down as a junior before missing spring practice for academic reasons. 

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

Previewing Tulane’s Specialists for 2015 

The kicking game was a debacle last year, and correcting those woes is priority No. 1 for new special teams coach Doug Lichtenberger. First, he has to find a reliable kicker after the Wave missed half of their 16 field goals. Walk-on Trevor Simms has unlimited range but questionable accuracy. Sophomore Andrew DiRocco missed a potential game-winning 21-yarder in the opener and never recovered. Incoming freshman Zach Block is rated more highly as a punter than placekicker. Badie could boost a kickoff return unit that ranked second-to-last nationally. Punter Peter Picerelli is coming off a poor year (37.8-yard average). 

Final Analysis 

The pieces are in place for an uptick in coach Curtis Johnson’s fourth season, but everything needs to go right after Tulane struggled with the move from Conference USA to the stronger AAC. Lee needs to mature quickly and get a better rapport with his young receivers. The running backs, whom Johnson considers NFL-caliber, need better blocking. The defense needs to apply more pressure on quarterbacks after having just 22 sacks last year. And, maybe most significantly, the Wave have to shore up their kicking game. The struggles there sapped confidence from the entire team. 


#102 SMU Mustangs



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Chad Morris, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joe Craddock | DEF. COORDINATOR: Van Malone

Chad Morris was one of the offseason’s top hires, but the first-year coach has plenty of work ahead in 2015. SMU returns only 11 starters and will be implementing new schemes on both sides of the ball after a 1-11 finish in 2014. The Mustangs will be better, and the future looks bright with Morris at the helm.

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Previewing SMU’s Offense for 2015 

Coach Chad Morris is confident that junior Matt Davis can operate his smash-mouth spread offense. After all, Morris recruited the dual-threat quarterback who signed with Texas A&M out of high school, while he was Clemson’s offensive coordinator.

Davis managed to stimulate a lifeless offense last year. Taking over the starting job the last six games, he finished the season as the team’s top rusher. His passing skills should improve in the new scheme, which employs two running backs and a tight end and relies more on runs between the tackles and vertical passes. The quick tempo of this no-huddle formation can keep defenses guessing when operated properly. With redshirt freshman Daniel Gresham, sophomore Darius Durall, senior K.C. Nlemchi and junior Prescott Line at running back, Morris has a variety of skills from which to choose.

SMU did not use a tight end in June Jones’ run-and-shoot, but Jeremiah Gaines (6'2", 240) has the size and hands to step in. The receiving corps, led by senior returning starter Darius Joseph (54 catches for 379 yards), needs more consistent play from Nate Halverson, Cedric Lancaster, Deion Sanders Jr. and Ryheem Malone. Freshmen Kevin Thomas and Xavier Castille could also make an impact.

Previewing SMU’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Under new defensive coordinator Van Malone, who coached defensive backs at Oklahoma State, the Mustangs have switched to a 4-2-5 scheme. This should allow SMU to emphasize speed on the edge and in the secondary while avoiding physical mismatches up front.

Malone hopes a more aggressive approach will put players in position to create turnovers. The Mustangs ranked 120th nationally with a minus-14 turnover margin last year.

Shakiel Randolph, who has the look of an NFL cornerback at 6'4", 216 pounds, should be a good fit in the new Star hybrid role. He played safety one year, switched to cornerback because of injuries last season and has added significant muscle. Jonathan Yenga, fourth in tackles last season, has 15.5 tackles for a loss the last two years.

Zach Wood, who had a team-high four sacks last year, will anchor the line. Mason Gentry (6'6", 292) has the size to be a force. The development of Elie Nabushosi, Zelt Minor and Spencer Hollie should produce a more consistent attack by committee with Andrew McCleneghen, Cameron Smith and Nick Reed. True freshman Chris Biggurs is the top newcomer.

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

Previewing SMU’s Specialists for 2015 

Sanders Jr., second-team all-conference as a kick returner last season, set school records for single-game return yards (203) and returns (10). As a senior in high school, kicker Josh Williams hit a 71-yard field goal during practice. Range shouldn’t be an issue.

Final Analysis 

Bringing an up-tempo pace to all facets of SMU football, Morris seems the ideal candidate to rebuild the program from the ashes of 1–11. And things may not be quite as dire for the Mustangs as they appeared last season. “It was a tough deal with the interim coach coming in at mid-year and they weren’t winning,” says one AAC assistant. “I thought they were probably better than their record indicated; it was just a bad situation.”

That situation has certainly improved with the high-profile hire of Morris. Having spent 16 years as a Texas high school coach, Morris has used his ties to repair recruiting relationships with coaches in the state, particularly in Dallas-Forth Worth. The turnaround may take some time, but Morris has SMU fans thinking big again.