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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#65 Rutgers Scarlet Knights

NATIONAL FORECAST

#65

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Kyle Flood, 23-16 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Ben McDaniels | DEF. COORDINATOR: Joe Rossi

After Rutgers first season in the league, fans in the Big Ten still don’t know what to make of the Scarlet Knights. Kyle Flood got a lot out of his team last fall but enters his important fourth season with increased pressure and a rebuilt depth chart. In a brutal division, returning to a bowl game should be a reasonable goal.

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Previewing Rutgers’ Offense for 2015


Rutgers has had a revolving door for offensive coordinators, but the Scarlet Knights’ sixth play-caller in as many years isn’t expected to change things much from last season. Ben McDaniels spent last year as an apprentice to Ralph Friedgen, the longtime Maryland head coach who decided to retire after his one season calling plays for the Scarlet Knights. Under the 67-year-old Friedgen’s tutelage, Rutgers ranked seventh in the Big Ten in total offense, but McDaniels insists he won’t tinker much with the pro-style system this fall.

There is plenty of uncertainty at the quarterback position, where a pair of redshirt sophomores will compete for the right to replace four-year starter Gary Nova. Chris Laviano held a slight edge over LSU transfer Hayden Rettig in spring practice, but Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood figures to use the first few weeks of training camp before anointing either player as the starter. Whichever quarterback wins the job, he will have plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal, including a wide receiver — Leonte Carroo — who stiff-armed the NFL Draft to return for his senior campaign and one of the deepest backfields in the Big Ten. Paul James, Justin Goodwin, Josh Hicks, Robert Martin and Desmon Peoples have all started games for Flood, who figures to give James every opportunity to regain the starting nod after a knee injury derailed a promising campaign a year ago. 

Previewing Rutgers’ Defense for 2015

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

A step up in conference class resulted in Rutgers’ defense ranking near the bottom of every meaningful statistic in the Big Ten last season. In their first season under the direction of defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, the Scarlet Knights yielded a combined 180 points in losing to the league’s top four teams. A defensive unit that graduated six starters faces the same quartet again this season.

Darius Hamilton, a two-year starter at defensive tackle and returning captain, is the heart and soul of a unit that will look to shore up a run defense that ranked 106th nationally last season.

“From a talent standpoint, this might be one of the best defenses I’ve been around,’’ Hamilton says, pointing to an experienced secondary featuring cornerbacks Nadir Barnwell and Anthony Cioffi and a linebacker corps that includes returning starters Quentin Gause and Steve Longa. “This is a really talented group. I think the only After Rutgers first season in the league, fans in the Big Ten still don’t know what to make of the Scarlet Knights. Kyle Flood got a lot out of his team last fall but enters his important fourth season with increased pressure but a rebuilt depth chart. In a brutal division, returning to a bowl game should be a reasonable goal.


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

Previewing Rutgers’ Specialists for 2015


The Scarlet Knights have traditionally been a force on special teams, blocking more kicks (41) than any team in the country since the 2009 season. Kemoko Turay led the country with three blocked kicks last season, including a potential go-ahead field goal against Michigan. While Kyle Federico made 16-of-21 field goal attempts, the placekicking operation was plagued by some errant snaps from long snapper Alan Lucy, who will need to show improvement in his second season handling the job. Joe Roth and Tim Gleeson battled for the starting punting job throughout last season, and the result saw Rutgers rank fourth-worst among Big Ten teams in net punting. Gleeson holds a slight edge in the competition heading into training camp.

Final Analysis

No one expected life in the Big Ten to be easy for Rutgers, and losses to Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State by a combined 180–44 score showed that the Scarlet Knights have a long way to go before they can compete with the cream of the conference crop. Rutgers’ quest to reach a bowl game for the 10th time in 11 years will depend on whether Flood can find enough offense to compensate for a young defensive corps that figures to struggle against elite Big Ten competition once again.   

The Debate

Is Leonte Carroo the Best WR in the Big Ten?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#64 Illinois Fighting Illini

NATIONAL FORECAST

#64

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Tim Beckman , 12-25 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill Cubit | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tim Banks, Mike Phair

Tim Beckman’s teams have improved every year he’s been at Illinois. But an offseason fraught with negative headlines and a very difficult Big Ten schedule have raised questions about his long-term future with the Illini. A critical fourth season could go either direction for a team that has underachieved for the better part of a decade.

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Previewing Illinois’ Offense for 2015


It was supposed to be a smooth transition from four-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase to Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. It didn’t turn out that way. When Lunt was healthy in 2014, he was effective. But injuries forced him to miss five games. Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is happy to have Lunt back for his junior season. Lunt is in his third year working with Cubit at Illinois. He completed 64 percent of his passes in 2014 with 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.

“Physically, he looks better,” Cubit says. “He looks better in the pocket. He’s going to have to be real good for us to be good.”

Ask Cubit what is the strength of the offense, and he will quickly answer with a name: Josh Ferguson. The senior gained 735 yards and scored eight touchdowns on the ground in 2014. He had another 427 yards and two scores as a receiver.

Cubit’s job became more difficult on April 8. That’s when Mike Dudek, one of the top returning receivers in the Big Ten, suffered a torn ACL during a morning workout. He will be out until at least midseason. Geronimo Allison returns after finishing third on the team in 2014 with 41 catches. Cubit will need him to be a bigger part of the offense. He’ll need the same from sophomore Malik Turner.

Up front, depth is a big concern. Guard Ted Karras, the top returnee in 2015, missed the spring while recovering from surgery. He will be ready for training camp. The starting tackles appear set with Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt.

Previewing Illinois’ Defense for 2015

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

It has been awhile since Illinois had heated battles for starting spots at end and tackle. Back to the Ron Zook era. “Now we do,” coach Tim Beckman says. Senior end Jihad Ward is the best of an improving group. He is the leading returner in sacks (three) and tackles for a loss (8.5). Bad news for the Big Ten: Ward is better. Tackle Teko Powell is being counted on to anchor the middle. He missed the spring because of injury but is expected back.

The linebackers are growing up — in a good way. Having Mason Monheim back makes it easier for the coaches to sleep at night. T.J. Neal starts at middle linebacker. The Star position, a hybrid linebacker/safety, will be a training camp battle between James Crawford and Eric Finney.

V’Angelo Bentley returns at cornerback along with steady Eaton Spence. Taylor Barton is back at safety after finishing third on the team in tackles in 2014. Clayton Fejedelem made a late move in 2014 and will start at the other safety spot.


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

Previewing Illinois’ Specialists for 2015


Coordinator Alex Golesh is looking for consistency on field goals. David Reisner and Taylor Zalewski split the duties in 2014 with mediocre results. They missed 8-of-17 field-goal tries. The team has huge shoes to fill at punter after the graduation of Justin DuVernois, who averaged 44 yards per attempt. Ryan Frain and Reisner will compete for the starting punting position.  

Final Analysis

It is a simple question with a complicated answer: What does Beckman need to do to continue as Illinois football coach? The coach enters his fourth season with a 12–25 overall record and a 4–20 mark in the Big Ten. No doubt the team has improved during Beckman’s tenure. But the bar was set low with a 2–10 mark his first year. The Illini won four in 2013 and six in 2014. The fans demand more.

The schedule doesn’t help. The Illini travel to North Carolina and Iowa, while hosting Big Ten powerhouses Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Another bowl bid is doable, and six wins should keep Beckman at the school for at least another season. 

The Debate

Where Does Wes Lunt Rank Among Big Ten QBs?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#60 Indiana Hoosiers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#60

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Kevin Wilson, 13-34 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Johns | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian Knorr

There is no doubt that 2015 is a big year for Kevin Wilson at Indiana. The Hoosiers have clearly gotten better under Wilson during his time in Bloomington, but this program has fallen just short of taking the next step — aka, get to a bowl game. The Big Ten East has gotten tougher, so Indiana will have to continue to show improvement (and stay healthy) if it wants to reach the postseason.

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Previewing Indiana’s Offense for 2015
 

It’s challenging for a coach to be optimistic when he’s lost the best running back in school history, but that is Kevin Wilson’s assignment with Tevin Coleman gone. It’s Year 5 for Wilson. He’s learned the Hoosiers cannot win by simply throwing (first three seasons) or running (Coleman had more than 2,000 yards last year).

The promise IU showed last season dissolved after quarterback Nate Sudfeld suffered a shoulder injury. IU was forced to play a fourth-stringer (Zander Diamont) who beat only Purdue in the season finale. Sudfeld returns for his senior season but must be more accurate than he was before his injury.

Wilson scrambled to minimize the loss of Coleman by recruiting one of the best backs available — Jordan Howard, who ran for nearly 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns at UAB before the Blazers dropped their program. Howard lacks Coleman’s big-play speed, but he’s a tough, durable kid. Tommie Mister should emerge as the backup after recovering from knee surgery

Sudfeld needs help from his receivers. After last season Wilson determined that the group was undersized. He’s tried to fix that by adding 6'2" Marqui Hawkins, another former UAB  player, and junior-college transfer Camion Patrick, also 6'2". Jordan Fuchs is the frontrunner at tight end, while tiny J-Shun Harris has the speed to excel at slot receiver.

Wilson has worked tirelessly to upgrade the offensive line, and the results showed last season. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney are fierce and dependable anchors.

Previewing Indiana’s Defense for 2015

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

The numbers would give Nick Saban heartburn, but they signaled improvement for the Hoosiers. The defense improved by allowing 94 fewer yards (down to 433.8) and six fewer points (32.8) per game, but coordinator Brian Knorr’s unit must take the next step of helping Indiana win.

Knorr shifted the Hoosiers into a 3-4 scheme last season. The defensive front features two playmakers — nose tackle Nate Hoff, who averaged one tackle for a loss in his eight starts, and junior Darius Lathum, an acrobatic athlete. Nick Mangieri emerged at Bandit, showing the necessary pass-rushing skills.

Indiana has not produced an NFL Draft pick at linebacker in 27 seasons. That should change soon as sophomore Tegray Scales has the speed to create turnovers. Junior T.J. Simmons and sophomore Greg Gooch will split time in the middle. Don’t be surprised if Dameon Willis, another speedball, outplays Clyde Newton to play outside linebacker.

The secondary wasn’t great last season, and both starting cornerbacks departed. That will be a good thing if Rashard Fant and Donovan Clark can translate their athletic ability into coverage skills. True freshmen will get a legitimate look here. Knorr expects big things from Chase Dutra at safety. He can run and hit. The defensive backfield suffered a huge blow when Antonio Allen was dismissed from the team after an arrest in June. 


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

Previewing Indiana’s Specialists for 2015


Griffin Oakes set a school record with a 58-yard field goal, one of 13 he converted on 18 tries. Erich Toth must improve his 40.7-yard punting average. Harris returned punts and kickoffs but was unable to return any kicks more than 35 yards.

Final Analysis

This year matters for Wilson, who has yet to win more than five games in a season. With three years remaining on his contract, Wilson needs to deliver a bowl trip to earn an extension and love from Indiana’s modest fan base. With three home games and a trip to Wake Forest to open the season, the Hoosiers need a big start before sliding into Big Ten play against Ohio State. If Sudfeld can stay healthy and the defense creates more turnovers, a six-win season is realistic. 

The Debate

Is Nate Sudfeld a Top-Five QB in the Big Ten?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#57 Maryland Terrapins

NATIONAL FORECAST

#57

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Randy Edsall, 20-30 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Locksley | DEF. COORDINATOR: Keith Dudzinski

There are a lot of moving parts for Randy Edsall and the Terrapins in 2015. After a great debut season in the Big Ten that featured a bowl berth, Edsall finds himself replacing his quarterback, his defensive coordinator and 11 other starters from his starting lineup. Maryland could roll through the non-conference schedule but will face one of the Big Ten's toughest conference schedules. Getting to a bowl game would be considered a quality season in College Park.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports


Previewing Maryland’s Offense for 2015


Caleb Rowe steps in at quarterback behind a bigger and better offensive line, something that the Terrapins discovered is a prerequisite in the Big Ten. Rowe has missed more time with knee injuries than he has played, but he is a strong-armed passer with enough experience to step in and make things happen, though probably not in the read-option like his predecessor C.J. Brown. The Terrapins also added Oklahoma State transfer Daxx Garman in late May, who is eligible to compete in 2015.

Expect a more pass-friendly offense even without departed receiver Stefon Diggs, and look for the Terrapins to try to put a little oomph in a running game that rated third from the bottom in the Big Ten with just 121.8 rushing yards per game. Leading running backs Brandon Ross and Wes Brown are back, and Juwann Winfree (suspended indefinitely in early June) and Levern Jacobs are proven commodities at receiver.

The big news is the presence of redshirt freshmen Derwin Gray (if he’s back from a spring shoulder injury), Damian Prince and Brendan Moore on a line that has struggled for several seasons. There’s more experience around them and depth behind them, and that facet of the game is Maryland’s best bet to improve.

Previewing Maryland’s Defense for 2015

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

Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart and his 3-4 defense are gone, as are nearly all of the front seven from a unit that allowed 30.2 points per game and seemed worn down by season’s end. Start the rebuild under new coordinator Keith Dudzinski with what could be a great secondary. All-Big Ten corner William Likely is back, and talented senior safety Sean Davis is making the move to the other corner spot. Look for Likely and Davis to thrive in man-to-man coverage.

Heat-seeking missile Anthony Nixon is back at safety, but where’s the pass rush going to come from? Junior Yannick Ngaouke, who had 13.5 tackles for a loss last season, moves from linebacker to the hybrid Bandit end position, and senior Quinton Jefferson is back from a knee injury and taking his quickness from end to tackle. Abner Logan has all the tools to be a great weak-side linebacker, and coaches loved what they saw from middle linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. in the spring.


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

Previewing Maryland’s Specialists for 2015


Brad Craddock hit 18-of-19 field goal attempts last year, keeping the Terps in a lot of games and winning a couple more. And he spent all summer trying to improve his kickoffs. Coaches love this guy. A freshman, likely big-legged Lee Shrader, will end up as punter in what has been an area of concern in recent years. The Terps are strong in the return game with Likely handling kickoffs and punts. Not only should opponents not throw to his side of the field on defense, but they should stop kicking to him, too. Special teams coach Andre Powell bolted, and the Terps will handle these coaching chores by committee this fall. 

Final Analysis

The Terrapins surprised everyone with a seven-win season out of the gate in their first Big Ten campaign. Okay, okay, Penn State and Michigan — two big Maryland road victims — weren’t exactly Penn State and Michigan last season, but the Terrapins still managed to finish 4–4 in league play.

Moving forward, there are so many variables in play — new quarterback, young but bigger and better offensive line, a new 4-3 defense and just two defensive starters back in the positions they played in 2014 — making the Terrapins a tough team to forecast. Say this at least: They’ve been resilient. Through devastating injuries (they’re just three years removed from a freshman linebacker playing quarterback, and a running back had to play wide receiver last year) and the major move to Midwestern football, the Terrapins have stayed on course, slow and steady.

The Debate

Where Does Maryland Rank As a Coaching Job Among the Big Ten?

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