Big Ten

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

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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.

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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

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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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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#58 Northwestern Wildcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#58

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Pat Fitzgerald, 60-53 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mick McCall | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Hankwitz

Pat Fitzgerald is the father of Northwestern football but his Wildcats have missed the postseason two seasons in a row after five straight bowl games. His roster returns a large chunk of the depth chart — try 15 starters — but he has to plug holes at key positions like quarterback. His roster is in good shape but he needs to regain some former magic if Northwestern wants to win the Big Ten West Division.

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Previewing Northwestern’s Offense for 2015

A unit that has backslid significantly since 2012 must recapture efficiency and explosiveness. The regeneration attempt will occur with a new starting quarterback, as senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson competed closely throughout the spring.

The offense hinges on three factors where Northwestern struggled in 2014: passing accuracy (57.4 percent), third-down conversions (40 percent) and QB mobility (minus-94 net yards).

The Wildcats can build around running back Justin Jackson, who had six 100-yard rushing performances and ranked fourth among Power 5 freshmen in all-purpose average (98.9 ypg). The return of Christian Jones, Northwestern’s leading receiver in 2012 and 2013, should boost an underperforming receiving corps. Northwestern could use Jones in the slot alongside super backs Dan Vitale and Garrett Dickerson — three big bodies who create matchup problems. Coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes Miles Shuler, Solomon Vault and others can stretch the field, as Northwestern recorded only 34 plays of 20 yards or longer last season, fewer than all but three FBS teams. “We have to get faster and more explosive and create more separation on the perimeter,” Fitzgerald says.

The line must protect better after several players switched positions.

Previewing Northwestern’s Defense for 2015
 

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Recent recruiting upgrades could pay off as young defenders forced into major roles by injury last fall can build on their experience. Two of them, linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Godwin Igwebuike, combined for five interceptions and a forced fumble as redshirt freshmen. Both become full-time starters as Igwebuike joins three returning starters in a secondary that could be Northwestern’s best under Fitzgerald.

The Wildcats are experienced at cornerback and defensive end, where three veterans — Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo — return alongside Xavier Washington, the only true freshman defender to play in 2014. Odenigbo, who has 8.5 career sacks and forced three fumbles last year, had his best spring and could be ready to break out. 

Northwestern needs improved health and production at defensive tackle after allowing six opponents to eclipse 200 yards rushing last year. Outside linebacker also is thin as speedy senior Drew Smith becomes a full-time starter. 


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

Previewing Northwestern’s Specialists for 2015

Northwestern must restore its effectiveness in the kicking game after a down year. Punter Hunter Niswander stood out in spring ball as he tries to boost a unit that finished 121st and 118th nationally the past two years in net average. Jack Mitchell had a solid first season at kicker, connecting on 14-of-18 field-goal attempts, most notably the game-winner at Notre Dame. Shuler should help a below-average return game along with Vault, who averaged 26.2 yards on kick returns in limited work as a freshman.   

Final Analysis

A sense of normalcy is back at Northwestern, and so is a sense of urgency. The Wildcats understand what a third consecutive bowl-less campaign would do to a program still fighting the pre-1995 loser label. Fitzgerald has arguably his most talented defense, and if the special teams meet his expectations, the season once again could hinge on reigniting the offense. A drop-prone receiving corps must take a step forward, and an inconsistent line must protect the new quarterback, but there are weapons such as Jackson, Jones and Vitale.

Northwestern must navigate another tricky non-league schedule with Stanford and Duke but once again misses Ohio State and Michigan State in league play. “We’ve got to do the things winners do,” Fitzgerald says. “We’ve got to get that edge back.”

The Debate

Where Does Pat Fitzgerald Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#53 Iowa Hawkeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#53

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Kirk Ferentz, 115-85 (16 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Greg Davis | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Parker

Kirk Ferentz is entering his 17th season at the helm of the Iowa Hawkeyes football program. He’s seen amazing highs — two Orange Bowls and two Big Ten titles — and plenty of lows. For all of the heat he’s taken, Ferentz has still gotten Iowa to 12 bowls games in his last 14 seasons. That should once again be the target of the ’15 squad. The question is how many more solid but uninspiring seasons will keep Hawkeyes fans happy? 

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Previewing Iowa’s Offense for 2015


The end of last season was also the end of Jake Rudock as an Iowa quarterback. Rudock, who started 25 of Iowa’s last 26 games, transferred to Michigan after being passed on the depth chart by junior C.J. Beathard shortly after last season.

Rudock had a 14–11 record as Iowa’s starting quarterback but was criticized for being too conservative as a passer, often settling for safer underneath routes instead of throwing downfield. Beathard, on the other hand, is blessed with a powerful right arm and likes to use it. The Tennessee native, who is the grandson of former NFL executive Bobby Beathard, played in nine games last season, starting one. He replaced an injured Rudock for the second half against Pittsburgh and for the entire game at Purdue. Iowa won both games, which fueled Beathard’s popularity. Keeping Beathard healthy will be of utmost importance because no other quarterback on the roster has any game experience.

Senior Jordan Canzeri takes over for the departed Mark Weisman as the starting running back. Canzeri is faster and shiftier than the 240-pound Weisman, but Canzeri also is injury prone. Junior LeShun Daniels also will be in the mix at running back after missing most of last season with an injury. The 225-pound Daniels probably has the best combination of power and speed among all the Iowa running backs.

Much is expected from senior receiver Tevaun Smith and senior tight end Jake Duzey. Smith led Iowa with 596 receiving yards last season, while Duzey was third with 392 receiving yards.

Previewing Iowa’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.

As disappointing as the Iowa offense was last season, the defense wasn’t much better. You could argue that it was worse in the TaxSlayer Bowl, as Tennessee shredded the Iowa defense for 461 total yards, including 283 rushing yards.

It won’t matter a whole lot what the offense does if the defense continues to struggle. There are some quality pieces to build around, most notably All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott and All-Big Ten cornerback Desmond King.

However, the linebackers are a major concern, and there will be new starters at both tackle positions. All three of Iowa’s starting linebackers are sophomores who were rushed into duty last season as freshmen. They flashed at times but were overmatched on many occasions.

The secondary, with three starters returning, is probably the strength on defense, although it was hard to tell during the loss to Tennessee because of all the missed tackles.


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

Previewing Iowa’s Specialists for 2015


Senior kicker Marshall Koehn might have improved more than any player on the team last season. He went from being a liability in the early stages of the season to a strength at the end. He made 12 of his 16 field-goal attempts and was impressive during spring practice. In fact, Koehn has impressed the coaches enough to where they also might let him punt. Seniors Connor Kornbrath and Dillon Kidd, both of whom are on scholarship, shared the punting responsibilities last season, but neither has distinguished himself. 

Final Analysis

It seems like with every strength that Iowa has, there is a weakness to offset it. Three starters return on the offensive line, but both tackles have to be replaced, including Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff. Both starters return at defensive end, but neither starter returns at defensive tackle.

Beathard is considered more athletic than Rudock, but he still is mostly unproven as a Big Ten starting quarterback.

Iowa has been average over the past three seasons with a 19–19 record. Expect more of the same from this team despite another favorable schedule.

The Debate

Where Does Kirk Ferentz Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#45 Minnesota Golden Gophers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#45

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Jerry Kill, 25-26 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Limegrover | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tracy Claeys

Few coaches get more out of their team than Jerry Kill at Minnesota. It's easy to forget that the Golden Gophers were one half away from winning the Big Ten West Division last fall. With just four starters back on offense, Kill knows his offense has some work to do this summer. Luckily, the defense brings back seven starters, so expect Minnesota to win low-scoring games early in the year while the offense gets up to speed.

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Previewing Minnesota’s Offense for 2015


Minnesota has steadily improved in each of Jerry Kill’s four seasons, but to take the next step, the passing game must improve. Junior quarterback Mitch Leidner returns to a passing attack that ranked 119th nationally last year.

The Gophers need to replace their two best playmakers on offense, as running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams are both headed to the NFL. Minnesota installed a new, no-huddle offense this spring and worked extensively on its short passing game. The goal is to get the ball out of Leidner’s hands more quickly.

“We can’t lose our identity of who we are,” Kill says. “We’re going to run the football. But I think we win two or three more games last year if we throw it a little bit better. That’s our fault (as coaches), not the kids’ fault.”

The battle for the 300-plus carries that went to Cobb last year starts with senior Rodrick Williams and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith. The receiving corps needs a boost, and the Gophers hope for big things from four redshirt freshmen — Jeff Jones, Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant and Melvin Holland Jr.

Previewing Minnesota’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.

Defense has been a strength under Kill, and this could be defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys’ stingiest bunch yet. The Gophers will start four seniors in the secondary, including All-Big Ten cornerbacks Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray. Boddy-Calhoun had five interceptions last year, compared to one for Murray, but that’s because teams often avoid Murray altogether.

After ranking ninth in the Big Ten in sacks last year (2.08 per game), the Gophers should have a better pass rush. Defensive end Hank Ekpe, who was limited with a severe sinus infection last year, was one of the most impressive players in spring camp. Another defensive end, Theiren Cockran, had 7.5 sacks in 2013. The Gophers must replace middle linebacker Damien Wilson, but Claeys felt like the linebackers were the most pleasant surprise this spring. It’s unclear who will start in Wilson’s place — Cody Poock or Everett Williams — but Claeys likes both options.


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

Previewing Minnesota’s Specialists for 2015


Kill’s teams are usually strong on special teams, and this unit could be one of his best. Senior Peter Mortell was the Big Ten Punter of the Year last season, leading the conference with a 45.2-yard average. Sophomore kicker Ryan Santoso hit a 56-yard field goal in the spring game. Craig James was the Big Ten’s fifth-leading punt returner last year, and Jalen Myrick was the conference’s second-leading kickoff returner.

Final Analysis

Kill was named Big Ten Coach of the Year last season, and he’ll need to work more magic this year against a schedule that includes TCU and Ohio State. The coaches are confident they have enough running back talent to replace Cobb, but there’s no substitute for a dynamic tight end like Williams. Leidner was instrumental in all five Big Ten wins last year. He needs to be more consistent. If the offense finds a way, this won’t be a fun team to play.

“We’ve got a chance to be a really, really good football team,” Kill says. “We’re very athletic on both sides of the ball.”

The Gophers were picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten West last year but wound up pushing Wisconsin to a final-week showdown for the division title. The Gophers landed their first New Year’s Day bowl appearance since 1962, and more than 20,000 of their fans turned out to watch them play Missouri in the Citrus Bowl.

The fans want more. The Gophers haven’t defeated Wisconsin since 2003 and haven’t won a bowl game since 2004. If Kill can get those things done, his popularity will continue to soar.

The Debate

Where Does Jerry Kill Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#32 Penn State Nittany Lions

NATIONAL FORECAST

#32

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: James Franklin, 7-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Donovan | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bob Shoop

If not for an NCAA decision midway through 2014, the highlight of last season may have been a win over UCF on Aug. 30 across the Atlantic Ocean. The Nittany Lions started 4-0 but struggled through most of the season thanks largely to a thin offensive line. They did, however, get to six wins, key since the NCAA lifted their bowl ban. Penn State took advantage by defeating Boston College 31-30 in the Pinstripe Bowl. That progress should continue in the second season under James Franklin and the first full season as Penn State returns to full strength.

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Previewing Penn State’s Offense in 2015 
 

Christian Hackenberg is looking for a bounce-back season after seeing his touchdown-interception ratio go from 20-to-10 as a freshman to 12-to-15 as a sophomore. But most of the questions on offense concern his supporting cast. 

Hackenberg was sacked a Big Ten-worst 44 times last year, so figuring out how to protect No. 14 is high on the to-do list. The Lions have six linemen with starting experience back, a big improvement over last year, when only one member of the first-team unit had ever started a college game prior to opening day. 

The receiving corps mirrors the line, in that it’s looking to reap the benefits of last year’s trial by fire. Sophomores DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall all saw extensive action in 2014, with Hamilton catching a league-best 82 passes. 

In the backfield, the Lions welcome back last year’s leading rusher, junior Akeel Lynch, along with a quintet of highly regarded freshmen. 

With most of his supporting cast returning, hopes are ratcheting back up for Hackenberg’s junior season. In the two games last season in which he was healthy and well-protected — the opener vs. UCF and the Pinstripe Bowl vs. Boston College — he combined to complete 68 percent of his passes for 825 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions. That’ll do nicely. 

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 Penn State’s Defense in 2015
 

Tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel are rock solid. The 6'4", 325-pound Johnson was the unsung hero of a Penn State defense that last season ranked third nationally against the run. Zettel, meanwhile, played a very prominent role, leading the team in tackles for a loss (17) and sacks (eight) and tying for the lead in interceptions (three). 

The Lions will have two holes to fill at defensive end — Garrett Sickels and Carl Nassib are the leading candidates — but their biggest vacancy is at middle linebacker, where someone needs to replace last year’s Big Ten tackling leader, Mike Hull. Junior Nyeem Wartman, a two-year starter at outside backer, slid inside in spring practice, with returning starter Brandon Bell and sophomore Jason Cabinda outside. 

The secondary returns three starters and should be a strength. Marcus Allen started the last seven games of his true freshman season and “played as well as any safety in college football the second half of the year,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop says. At free safety, the Lions will rely on Jordan Lucas, a two-year starter at cornerback. Sophomore Grant Haley looks like the leading contender for Lucas’ former position, while senior Trevor Williams returns at the opposite cornerback spot.  

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

 

Previewing Penn State’s Specialists in 2015
 

Franklin referred to walk-on Joey Julius as “Big Toe” this spring. A redshirt freshman, Julius has yet to attempt a field goal or PAT in a college game, but he’s battling deposed punter Chris Gulla for the job. The Lions punted erratically last season, so there’s a competition under way between Daniel Pasquariello and Robby Liebel. 

Final Analysis
 

The Lions have addressed their glaring weakness, building depth and experience along a patchwork offensive line. They’ll still be young up front, with only one senior on the projected two-deep (two if you count incoming graduate transfer Kevin Reihner), but the line probably won’t be as big of a liability. On the opposite side of the ball, they return seven starters from what was, statistically, the Big Ten’s best defense last season. 

Of Penn State’s six losses last fall, only two were by more than a touchdown. If the defense holds strong and Hackenberg gets a chance to show what he can do, it’s not hard to imagine the Lions turning a few of those close losses into close wins in 2015. 

The Debate

Where Does James Franklin Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#29 Nebraska Cornhuskers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#29

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Mike Riley, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Danny Langsdorf | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mark Banker

Nebraska football needed a culture change heading into 2015, and in new coach Mike Riley, the Cornhuskers have that. Nebraska traded the abrasive, tightly wound Bo Pelini for the former Oregon State coach who is known for being one of the most relaxed coaches in a profession marked by Type A personalities. Whether Riley can deliver different results from his predecessor remains to be seen. Nine and 10 wins became the norm for Pelini, yet that was a mark Riley hit only once since 2008.

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Previewing Nebraska’s Offense for 2015
 

Mike Riley has installed a pro-style offense with returning starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback. Armstrong, the team’s second-leading rusher a year ago behind the departed Ameer Abdullah, will become more of a pocket passer. 

Among the first things offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf told Armstrong was that he wasn’t a runner, though the threat of his running will continue to be a concern for opposing defenses, especially in third-down situations. Armstrong completed 53 percent of his passes for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns with 12 interceptions last season. Langsdorf is expecting increased efficiency.

Look for De’Mornay Pierson-El to be featured at wide receiver, along with veteran Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly, who came as a walk-on.

Terrell Newby and Imani Cross are the most experienced of the running backs, a position where there will be continued competition for playing time in fall camp as the Huskers look to replace departed All-American Ameer Abdullah.

Regardless of the system, success will depend on the play up front. The line is built around left tackle Alex Lewis, a candidate for postseason honors and the only returning lineman who started every game last season. He sets the tone emotionally.

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.

Previewing Nebraska’s Defense for 2015 
 

In the spring, players on defense talked about being freed up to make plays in coordinator Mark Banker’s system. Banker said, jokingly, he didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or that it meant the system was “like being in elementary school.” 

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are returning starters at tackle. Collins’ quickness allowed him to lead the team in tackles for a loss in the previous system, so he could be even more effective. Valentine is a “load to block,” says defensive line coach Hank Hughes. Kevin Williams is a third proven tackle.

Depth is a concern at defensive end, where Greg McMullen returns, and linebacker, where young players will be in the mix with Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey, who returns after missing all of last season with a knee injury.

Safety Nate Gerry, cornerback Daniel Davie and nickel Byerson Cockrell are a place to start, but the secondary rotation will include young players, possibly a true freshman or two.

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

Previewing Nebraska’s Specialists for 2015
 

Pierson-El was among the best punt returners in the country as a true freshman, returning three for touchdowns. Special teams coach Bruce Read doesn’t plan to use him on kickoff returns, however, because of his importance as a receiver. Sam Foltz and Drew Brown are the returning punter and placekicker, respectively, and the recruits include long-snapper Jordan Ober. Nebraska hasn’t had an assistant assigned solely to special teams in the past. But such a position is “very, very key,” Riley says.

Final Analysis 
 

Nebraska won nine or more games in each of Bo Pelini’s seven seasons as coach. His overall record was 67–27. So Riley can expect to be held to a high standard. But he is considerably more engaging than his predecessor, which probably means there will be some degree of patience during the transition.

The non-conference schedule could be challenging, with an opener at home against BYU and a trip to Miami (Fla.) two weeks later. But the conference schedule is such that nine wins, even in transition, should be possible. Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999. Winning one this year would be a stretch, though the Huskers should contend in the Big Ten West if the defense improves.

The Debate

Will Tommy Armstrong Rank Among the Top Five Big Ten QBs in 2015?

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