American Athletic

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#72 East Carolina Pirates

NATIONAL FORECAST

#72

American Athletic PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Ruffin McNeill, 37-27 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dave Nichol | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rick Smith

East Carolina enters 2015 without three of the key cogs of its offense — quarterback Shane Carden, receiver Justin Hardy and coordinator Lincoln Riley. Those are major departures, but with eight bowl games in the last nine seasons, the Pirates are rarely out of the mix.

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Previewing East Carolina’s Offense for 2015 
 

Some of the Pirates’ top swashbucklers are gone, including offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (off to Oklahoma) and the AAC Player of the Year, quarterback Shane Carden. That doesn’t mean the Air Raid offense is taking on water. New OC Dave Nichol is confident that strong-armed sophomore Kurt Benkert can step in and keep the ship on course.

There’s still a treasure chest of receivers, even without Justin Hardy and Cam Worthy (who combined for 2,510 yards and 14 scores last year). Returnees such as Isaiah Jones (81 catches, second on the team), Davon Grayson, Jimmy Williams and Trevon Brown will share Benkert’s booty in the passing game. Don’t count out eagerly anticipated freshman Deondre Farrier, who was wooed by Florida, Miami and USC, among others. 

In a subtle tweak, 6'6", 250-pound Bryce Williams might be listed as an inside receiver in the spread but actually is an old-fashioned tight end. He will see more action than just around the goal line, where he terrorizes defensive backs and linebackers. On the ground, Chris Hairston (6.7 yards per carry) and a couple of other solid candidates operate behind a big, veteran offensive line that will be a strength of the team under new line coach Brad Davis. 

The big concern is that Benkert threw only 10 passes last year. He was a quick study in the spring, and the offense should again set sail, maybe with a more stellar running game to punch up the red-zone offense. 

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.

Previewing East Carolina’s Defense for 2015 
 

The Pirates like to stop the run — they were 11th in the nation, allowing just 111.8 rushing yards per game — and get after opponents on third down (13th, yielding just 34.2 percent conversions). 

Linebacker Zeek Bigger is the returning tackles leader (140), but fellow senior Montese Overton should be the next big thing. He has all the tools. Physical Devaris Brunson is back from his knee injury in the middle, too, and walk-on Joe Allely just keeps improving on the weak side. Incoming junior college linebacker Darius Wright will get a long look, too. 

The backers will need help from a rebuilding front. End Johnathon White is the only returning starter, and he’ll get a push from K’Hadree Hooker. Terrell Stanley has made a dramatic return from injuries suffered in an auto accident that sidelined him last year. He was honorable mention All-C-USA in 2013. Former Georgia Tech signee Darius Commissiong could figure in, too. 

Senior cornerback Josh Hawkins is a ball hawk who had five interceptions and broke up 11 more passes. Free safety Travon Simmons and corner Rocco Scarfone came on strong late last year and look assured of jobs as well in a deep, experienced secondary.

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

Previewing East Carolina’s Specialists for 2015 
 

Texas A&M transfer Davis Plowman is the favorite to fill Warren Harvey’s shoes as the placekicker, and that won’t be easy after Harvey set the career ECU scoring record. Punter Worth Gregory averaged 43.6 yards, put 19 kicks inside the 20-yard line and had 13 50-yard boots on his way to Ray Guy Award consideration. 

Final Analysis 
 

Ruffin McNeill, on a cane all spring after hip surgery, can stand tall with what he has done in Greenville at his alma mater. The Pirates were 5–3 in their first year in the American Athletic Conference and went to their fourth bowl in McNeill’s five seasons. He graduated the leading passer in school history and the FBS’s all-time receptions leader (Hardy), but he had a 105-man roster out in spring, certainly a sign of a healthy program. If his young quarterback comes through, it looks like he has another bowl team to lean on.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#63 UCF Knights

NATIONAL FORECAST

#63

American Athletic East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: George O'Leary, 81-60 (11 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brent Key | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Bresnahan

George O’Leary followed up his Fiesta Bowl victory with another nine wins for UCF in 2014. His Knights return just 10 starters on a team that consistently contends in the American Athletic Conference. Those thinking UCF takes a step back just because of a few key departures should be careful of O’Leary’s always tough Knights.

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Previewing UCF’s Offense for 2015


A year ago, UCF’s biggest question was who would replace Blake Bortles at quarterback. It took until the beginning of the season, but the staff found the answer in Justin Holman, who overcame early inconsistency to post a solid sophomore campaign, completing 223-of-392 passes for 2,952 yards with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Now with a year of experience, there’s a sense Holman is poised for a breakout season.

Holman will be complemented with experience in the backfield and offensive line. Running back William Stanback missed several games due to nagging injuries, but the junior still was named all-conference for the second consecutive year after rushing for 697 yards and 10 touchdowns.

All but one of the key linemen return, and coaches are hopeful they’ll get center/guard Joey Grant back at full strength after offseason shoulder surgery.

The glaring issue is at wide receiver, where UCF must replace virtually every key player from 2014. The departure list includes NFL early entry Breshad Perriman, last year’s No. 1 target and a 1,000-yard receiver. The most experienced returnee is Jordan Akins, a former minor league baseball player who caught only 12 passes a year ago. Redshirt freshman Tre’Quan Smith is perhaps the most talented of the group and was Holman’s favorite target during the spring. With the shortage of experience, it’s quite possible all three of the incoming receiver recruits will suit up to play.


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

Previewing UCF’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.

In 2014, UCF finished fifth nationally in total defense (298.5 ypg) and ninth in scoring defense (19.2 ppg), but there are big shoes to fill with seven departing starters. The Knights must replace two of three linebacker starters and will have an entirely new secondary after graduating three seniors and seeing cornerback Jacoby Glenn, the 2014 AAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, declare early for the NFL Draft.

At cornerback, UCF does have several players who have been waiting in the wings, notably juniors Shaquill Griffin and D.J. Killings and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Kyle Gibson and Chris Williams, both of whom were among the most heralded signees of the 2014 recruiting class.

Coaches experimented with a mix of linebacker lineups during the spring, but there were always two constants: Chequan Burkett and Errol Clarke, who shared starting duties a season ago. Domenic Spencer, a senior who’s played a backup role his first three seasons, may get his chance to start.

The strength of the unit will be the defensive line, led by senior end Thomas Niles, who finished with a team-leading 7.5 sacks and 13.0 tackles for a loss in 2014. Coaches are confident in the middle with returning seniors Demetris Anderson and Lance McDowdell along with sophomore Jamiyus Pittman.

Previewing UCF’s Specialists for 2015


UCF will rely on redshirt freshman Matthew Wright to take over for Shawn Moffitt, perhaps the best kicker in program history. Wright was reliable during the spring and showed a strong leg.  Junior Caleb Houston is back at punter after averaging 38.9 yards on 54 punts. Return duties will be a battle that continues into the preseason. Akins has experience, and freshmen Chris Davis and Michael Rogers could factor into the mix.

Final Analysis  


Despite losing key players who helped the program clinch a share of its second consecutive American title in 2014, coach George O’Leary emphasizes that it’s a reload, not a rebuild. It’s hard to argue with O’Leary, who has averaged 9.4 wins over the past five seasons. Though there are question marks at certain positions, there’s an expectation that UCF has the talent to again be a contender for the conference title




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#62 Temple Owls

NATIONAL FORECAST

#62

American Athletic East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Matt Rhule, 8-16 (2 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Marcus Satterfield | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Snow

Matt Rhule clearly knows what he’s doing at Temple. The Owls enter the 2015 season a contender in the American Athletic Conference East Division with 17 starters back from a team that won just as many games as it lost. If Rhule can find balance on both sides of the ball, Temple could make some serious noise in the AAC.

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Previewing Temple’s Offense for 2015


When true freshman P.J. Walker became the quarterback midway through 2013, the future looked to be in capable hands. But despite a strong start to 2014, he finished the season with 13 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. In the last seven games, those numbers were four and 11, respectively. It was hardly coincidental that the Owls lost five of those games.

Part of the problem was the line, which had injuries and lacked depth. The status of tackle Dion Dawkins was uncertain in the spring due to an off-campus altercation, but he appears on track to return in the fall. In addition to Dawkins, four players return who started at least nine games, and the line is anchored by senior center Kyle Friend, a three-year starter. The addition of three first-year guys who sat out last year should help.

The Owls also never found a replacement for wideout Robbie Anderson, who averaged 18 yards a catch with nine TDs in 2013. The hope is that Hawaii transfer Keith Kirkwood and/or redshirt freshman Ventell Bryant can emerge to fill that role.

Nobody rushed for more than 384 yards, and Walker was the second-leading rusher. But there’s no shortage of candidates to address the running game. Zaire Williams, whose 533 yards two years ago were the third-most ever by a Temple freshman, barely played in 2014 because of a back injury. David Hood, who played in only two games as a freshman, also has potential, as do three new recruits — four-star T.J. Simmons, who turned down an offer from UCLA; Jager Gardner, who holds the Western North Carolina career high school rushing record (6,955 yards); and Ryquell Armstead, who has drawn comparisons to former Owl Bernard Pierce.


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

Previewing Temple’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.

This unit had trouble stopping anyone in 2013, especially late in games, which became a contributing factor in three close losses. Things turned around in 2014 as the Owls tied for fourth in the nation in points allowed (17.5 ppg). They also forced 30 turnovers, 17 more than the year before. Six of those were returned for scores, which was only one fewer than the previous four seasons combined.

And 10 starters return. Tyler Matakevich should become the program’s all-time leading tackler. He’s reached 100 in each of his first three seasons, becoming only the third Owl to accomplish that feat. And his 355 career stops are by far the most of any active NCAA player.

Coach Matt Rhule has touted end Praise Martin-Oguike and tackle Matt Ioannidis as future pros. The secondary, which for way too long was an area of concern, has been significantly upgraded in the last couple of years.

The most pressing question now is depth at linebacker. Avery Williams is a former running back/defensive back, and Stephaun Marshall is a converted free safety who can back up at all three spots.
 

Previewing Temple’s Specialists for 2015


Freshman Austin Jones made 13-of-22 field goals and had at least one miss in each of the last five games. But seeing as the Owls made just three field goals in 2013 (two in the final game), that was a big improvement. First-year punter Alex Starzyk was inconsistent. The Owls ran a punt back for a touchdown and scored two other times on blocks. Rhule wants to see more from his kickoff returns.

Final Analysis  


The Owls went from two wins in 2013 to six a year ago. There is reason to believe they can at least get back to a bowl game for the first time in four seasons, and a run at the American Athletic Conference East Division crown is not out of the question. To take that next step, the offense must produce as it did in Rhule’s debut season of 2013, and Temple must find what it takes to win more close games against better opponents.




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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#54 Navy Midshipmen

NATIONAL FORECAST

#54

Independents PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Ken Niumatalolo, 57-35 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Ivin Jasper | DEF. COORDINATOR: Buddy Green

The Midshipmen have been to six bowls in seven years under Ken Niumatalolo. With a superstar returning under center in the form of Keenan Reynolds, a seventh bowl game is all but certain. But can Navy contend for an American Athletic Conference championship in their first season in the new league?

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

Previewing Navy’s Offense for 2015
 

Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is looking to cap a remarkable career with a strong senior season. The Tennessee native already owns a slew of school records and ranks first among quarterbacks in NCAA history with 64 rushing touchdowns.  A rare fourth-year starter in Navy’s triple-option offense, Reynolds boasts a 21–11 record.

Reynolds will have plenty of proven weapons at his disposal, with senior fullback Chris Swain, senior slot back DeBrandon Sanders and junior wide receiver Jamir Tillman leading the way. Swain, a powerfully built 245-pounder bruiser, is coming off a strong 2014 campaign in which he displayed vastly improved vision while rushing for 693 yards. Sanders, a 5'7", 160-pound jitterbug, has averaged 8.0 yards per rush and 19.3 yards per reception during his career. Tillman, a smooth and fluid 6'4", 206-pounder, emerged as a big-play threat in 2014.

Navy must rebuild its offensive line after graduating three starters. Left guard E.K. Binns, entering his third season as a starter, takes over as the leader of the unit.

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

Previewing Navy’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.

The Midshipmen suffered significant losses on the defensive side of the ball, most notably end Paul Quessenberry, linebackers Jordan Drake and Chris Johnson and safety Parrish Gaines. That quartet will not be easy to replace.

Senior nose guard Bernie Sarra is one of the strongest players on the team and has done an outstanding job of holding the point of attack since moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore. Right end Will Anthony was the breakout performer of 2014, leading the team with 11.0 tackles for a loss.

Navy’s 3-4 scheme requires the inside linebackers to make the majority of the tackles, and Daniel Gonzales stepped up as a sophomore, ranking second on the squad with 86. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Three of the four linebackers will be first-time starters, although the speedy and rangy William Tuider has seen significant action in a reserve role. 

Junior Brendon Clements has started 20 straight games at cornerback and displayed superb ball instincts along with sure tackling. The Miami native already has 107 career tackles and eight pass breakups. Quincy Adams started all 13 games at the opposite corner and earned honorable mention All-Independent honors after finishing as Navy’s third-leading tackler. Strong safety Kwazel Bertrand has started 16 games over the previous two seasons.

Previewing Navy’s Specialists for 2015


Navy must replace one of the finest punters in program history in Pablo Beltran, a four-year starter who ranks second in school history with a 41.8-yard average. Senior Gavin Jernigan, the backup the previous two seasons, will get first crack at the job. Austin Grebe took over as the starting placekicker in the seventh game of last season and was impressive, hitting 6-of-6 on field goals and 33-of-33 on extra points. 

Final Analysis  


This is a new era for Navy, which joins the American Athletic Conference following more than a century as an Independent. The Midshipmen own a 34–27–1 record against current AAC members and have regularly played schools such as SMU, East Carolina and Tulane.

Veteran coach Ken Niumatalolo says capturing the conference championship has now been added to the annual goals of beating service academy rivals Army and Air Force to secure the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and qualifying for a bowl game.

 “I think joining a conference is something we had to do and will be good for the program over the long haul,” Niumatalolo says. “However, there is a lot of apprehension and nervousness because there are so many unknowns.”




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#59 Memphis Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#59

American Athletic West PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Justin Fuente, 17-20 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Darrell Dickey | DEF. COORDINATOR: Galen Scott

Justin Fuente has quickly changed the mindset of the Memphis program. This team was competitive against big-time competition last year and claimed a share of the American Athletic Conference championship. The offense should be solid with seven starters back, but Fuente has to replace eight starters and a coordinator on the defensive side of the ball. If things fall into place quickly, this team is a top challenger in the AAC once again.

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Previewing Memphis’ Offense for 2015
 

When he named Paxton Lynch, a 6'7" freshman, his starting quarterback before the start of the 2013 season, Memphis coach Justin Fuente encountered mild criticism. Fuente never wavered in his belief that Lynch could develop into one of the American Athletic Conference’s top quarterbacks. After struggling his freshman season, Lynch blossomed last fall. He passed for 3,031 yards — becoming only the third Tigers quarterback to surpass 3,000 yards in a season — to lead the program to its first 10-win season since 1938 and its first bowl game since 2008.

At running back, the Tigers lost veteran Brandon Hayes, who finished just shy of 1,000 yards, but return Doroland Dorceus, who missed most of the season and spring practice with a knee injury. Sophomore Jarvis Cooper is a punishing 250-pounder who possesses deceptive speed. He should be a first option in goal-line situations. Junior Sam Craft is a multi-purpose talent who could line up in the backfield or at receiver.

Memphis returns leading receiver Mose Frazier, more efficient than flashy operating out of the slot. In all, four of the team’s top six receivers are back, including tight end Alan Cross, who was a first-team all-league selection last year. 

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

Previewing Memphis’ 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.

One of the league’s top defensive units was hit hard by losses as it must replace eight starters. Plus, highly regarded coordinator Barry Odom left to return to Missouri, his alma mater, in the same role. Associate head coach and linebackers coach Galen Scott steps into Odom’s position.

Scott has to find three new starting linebackers, three new starting defensive backs and two new starting defensive linemen. Cornerback Bobby McCain was a four-year starter, and defensive end Martin Ifedi was the school’s career sacks leader. Linebacker Tank Jakes was the league’s co-Defensive Player of the Year.

In their places, Scott could insert Dontrell Nelson at cornerback, Latarius Brady at defensive end and Wynton McManis at linebacker. All played extensively as reserves with Nelson returning an interception 58 yards for a touchdown.

The top defensive returnee will be end/linebacker Jackson Dillon, a rangy, hard-hitting player who forced two fumbles and had nine tackles for a loss. Nelson and junior Chauncey Lanier are the leading candidates to start at cornerback. Free safety Reggis Ball is the lone returning starter in the secondary.

Previewing Memphis’ Specialists for 2015
 

Memphis returns the league’s top kicker and reigning conference Special Teams Player of Year in Jake Elliott, whose season included a dramatic 54-yard, game-tying field goal in the first overtime of the Tigers’ win over BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl. He has made 37-of-50 field goals in his first two seasons, including the game-winner in the closing seconds at Temple last year that made the Tigers bowl-eligible. The punting game is solid behind sophomores Spencer Smith and Nick Jacobs. On kickoffs, the Tigers will attempt to snap what is believed to be nation’s longest drought. Memphis has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 1996.

Final Analysis 
 

After going 10–3 last season and claiming a share of the AAC title, the Tigers are poised to repeat those successes. With Lynch at quarterback, the Tigers will possess a potent offense, one capable of overcoming whatever a rebuilding defense allows. A running game featuring two physical, punishing backs could be potent. Defensively, the Tigers will have to find replacements for eight players, including two — McCain and Ifedi — who will be playing in the NFL. How quickly the secondary develops in a pass-oriented conference could determine the team’s ability to repeat as league champs.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#50 Houston Cougars

NATIONAL FORECAST

#50

American Athletic West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Tom Herman, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Major Applewhite | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Orlando, Craig Naivar

Tom Herman enters his first season as a head coach accustomed to expectations. After winning a national championship as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator, he now enters the American Athletic Conference as one of the league’s contenders with Houston. The Cougars has one of the most talented rosters in the league and could be considered the frontrunner if Herman can hit the ground running.

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Previewing Houston’s Offense for 2015


By the end of the spring, new coach Tom Herman did not have a ringing endorsement for his offense: “We’re awful,” he said. “We’re not very good.” That’s to be expected as the Cougars attempt to change the culture of a once high-powered offense that had become stagnant in recent years.

The biggest question is at quarterback, where the competition between incumbent Greg Ward Jr. and Utah transfer Adam Schulz will continue into the fall. Ward went 6–2 after taking over the final eight games, including a 25-point, fourth-quarter comeback over Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Bowl.

Running back is the most experienced unit on offense with the return of Kenneth Farrow, who rushed for 1,037 yards and led the American Athletic Conference with 15 total touchdowns, and speedster Ryan Jackson. Both are seniors, so the Cougars will need to groom a few young heirs at some point during the season.

The Cougars will be young and inexperienced at receiver because of graduation and the surprising decision of Deontay Greenberry to leave a year early for the NFL Draft. Greenberry had 72 catches last season, more than double any other Cougars receiver. Among returners, only Demarcus Ayers and Steven Dunbar had at least 20 catches. Chance Allen, a transfer from Oregon, should provide immediate help. A rare sighting: The Cougars plan to use a tight end for the first time in eight years, with Tyler McCloskey the leading candidate.

Offensive line is the weak spot, with left tackle Zach Johnson, who is coming off ACL surgery, and right tackle Alex Cooper the only locks to start.


Previewing Houston’s Defense for 2015

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The terminology is different, but that’s about the only change as the Cougars plan to roll out the same attacking, hard-hitting, ball-hawking unit that has produced 73 turnovers the past two seasons. New co-coordinator Todd Orlando, who was hired from Utah State, will switch to a 3-4 scheme that mixes up looks and brings pressure from all angles.

The strength is a secondary that returns all four starters, including Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart at safety and William Jackson, a shutdown cornerback drawing some NFL Draft buzz.

Defensive end B.J. Singleton is the only returner on the line. He’ll be joined by defensive tackle Nick Thurman and end Cameron Malveaux, who were impressive in the spring but have combined to start only one game.

Steven Taylor, coming off a breakout season with four sacks and nine tackles for a loss, could be next in a line of great linebackers at the school following the graduation of Derrick Mathews and Efrem Oliphant. With the shift in schemes, Tyus Bowser will be used in a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role. 


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

Previewing Houston’s Specialists for 2015
 

A big improvement is needed in the return game, after the Cougars ranked among the bottom half in the AAC in both punt and kickoff returns. Ayers and Stewart are candidates to handle punts, while Herman would like to use a bigger body, such as Ryan Jackson, on kickoffs. Kyle Bullard tied for third in conference with 16 field goals, while punter Logan Piper showed improvement in the spring. 


Final Analysis

A first-time head coach, Herman brings credibility after winning a national title as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State. He’s spent the first several months on the job instilling a toughness that had been lacking in recent years. The Cougars have enough talent to compete in the AAC but will need to figure things out on the offensive line and develop across-the-board depth. A ninth bowl appearance in the last 11 years is certainly within reach.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#40 Cincinnati Bearcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#40

American Athletic PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Tommy Tuberville, 18-8 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eddie Gran | DEF. COORDINATOR: Steve Clinkscale

Cincinnati enters its third season under coach Tommy Tuberville as the favorite to win the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats return an explosive offense, headlined by quarterback Gunner Kiel and a deep receiving corps. However, question marks remain on defense.

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Previewing Cincinnati’s Offense for 2015
 

Quarterback Gunner Kiel came out firing in the 2014 opener with six touchdown passes in his collegiate debut. Kiel, a former No. 1 quarterback recruit who began his career at Notre Dame, finished with 31 TD passes to tie the Cincinnati single-season record, and his top seven receivers return. One question is durability. Kiel, now a junior, made all 13 starts last season, but he left several games with rib and/or back injuries. The UC training staff has worked with Kiel to improve his core strength.

Possession receiver Shaq Washington (66 catches, four TDs) is on pace to become the UC career leader in receptions. Mekale McKay and Chris Moore (eight TD catches apiece) are the deep threats in UC’s four-wideout offense.

UC ranked 13th nationally in passing offense but only 72nd in rushing, and the preseason focus is to improve the run game. One problem was that top backs Hosey Williams and Tion Green missed most of 2014 with injuries. Mike Boone led the club with 650 yards rushing and nine TDs as a true freshman. Boone and Williams will battle for the No 1 job in preseason camp.

The line loses three-time all-league left tackle Eric Lefeld. Three starters return: Parker Ehinger (moving from right guard to left tackle), right tackle Justin Murray and center Deyshawn Bond.

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

Previewing Cincinnati’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.

A 55–34 midseason thrashing by the Miami Hurricanes left the Bearcats dead last nationally in total defense, leading coach Tommy Tuberville to say: “We can’t tackle anybody on defense. We look like the Bad News Bears.” Two weeks before that, UC had allowed 710 yards in a 50–28 loss to Ohio State. The schedule lightened up in the second half of the season, and the Bearcats gradually rose to No. 96 in total defense. But UC’s relative lack of defensive speed has been exposed by Power 5 schools.

Key losses include linebackers Jeff Luc (134 tackles) and Nick Temple (113) and defensive end Terrell Hartsfield (AAC-best 9.0 sacks). Defensive end Silverberry Mouhon is the top returnee among the front seven.

Ball-hawking safety Zach Edwards (121 tackles) is back, and the secondary should benefit from the return of veteran cornerback Adrian Witty. A vocal team leader, Witty missed most of 2014 with a leg injury.

UC has its third defensive coordinator in three seasons under Tuberville, with Steve Clinkscale promoted from secondary/cornerbacks coach. Last year’s coordinator, Hank Hughes, left to become defensive line coach at Nebraska.

Previewing Cincinnati’s Specialists for 2015
 

The special teams also will have their third coordinator in Tuberville’s third UC season as Ty Linder joins the staff from TCU. Placekicker Andrew Gantz returns after a solid debut season that saw him earn second-team All-AAC honors after making 16-of-20 field goal attempts. Punter Sam Geraci also made his UC debut last year and improved as the season progressed, finishing with a 39.4-yard average. The coverage teams were better after a dreadful 2013 season, but UC again produced little in the return game.

Final Analysis 
 

After two consecutive 9–4 seasons and two bowl losses under Tuberville, some believe UC is running in place. The Bearcats did share the AAC title last year, but they lack a signature win in Tuberville’s brief tenure. Tuberville turns 61 in September, and he has not had a team finish in the final AP top 25 since 2007 (Auburn). The 2014 Bearcats don’t look like a top 25 team, either, but they should be considered the favorite in the East Division of the expanded American Athletic Conference. There are some issues on defense, but the offense, led by Kiel, will put UC in position to win eight or nine games once again. 




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