Conference USA

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#128 Charlotte 49ers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#128

C-USA East PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Brad Lambert, 10-12 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Mullen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Matt Wallerstedt

Charlotte is the newest member of the FBS ranks, and the 49ers join Conference USA after winning 10 games over the last two seasons under coach Brad Lambert. Charlotte has a ways to go before competing for a bowl game or a conference title, but the 49ers should score plenty of points in 2015 behind running back Kalif Phillips and receiver Austin Duke.

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Previewing Charlotte’s Offense for 2015 


The master plan for Charlotte’s young football program was to have its first generation of players come of age at the same time. As the 49ers enter their third season of existence and first in Conference USA, that plan should start paying off as most key offensive players return to a quick-strike offense that had 22 touchdown drives of 90 seconds or less last season.

Junior running back Kalif Phillips is coming off a 1,436-yard season and should again have a prominent role. He’ll have the luxury of an offensive line that brings back plenty of experience. Charlotte’s top two receivers, Austin Duke and Trent Bostick, also return, headlining a talented group that also includes Georgia transfer and former four-star recruit Uriah LeMay.

While much of the offense is settled, things should be interesting at quarterback. Matt Johnson started eight games last season before tearing his MCL. After he went out, Lee McNeill stepped in and helped lead the 49ers to two victories. Both players will be juniors this season and should be pushed by redshirt freshman Brooks Barden.

“I just feel like we’ve got a lot of pieces,” says Charlotte coach Brad Lambert, who served on Jim Grobe’s staff at Wake Forest for 10 years.

Previewing Charlotte’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 giving up 31.6 points per game last season, Lambert turned to former Texas Tech defensive coordinator — and his old college roommate — Matt Wallerstedt to fix a shaky defense. Wallerstedt, who says he’ll keep the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme, inherits a defense that has some talent but little depth.

Lambert says he’s happy with the options along the defensive front. After missing last season, Devon Johnson will join last season’s sack leader Larry Ogunjobi on the line. Syracuse transfer Josh Manley should also be a factor.

Elsewhere on defense, there are questions. Nick Cook and Caleb Clayton-Molby will anchor the linebacking corps after both missed chunks of last season due to injury. Branden Dozier, last season’s leading tackler, and Devin Pearson will be proven options in the defensive backfield. But Lambert says that developing talent to put around these standouts will be the top priority heading into the preseason.

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

Previewing Charlotte’s Specialists for 2015 


Kicker Blake Brewer and punter Arthur Hart are back and should keep their spots. Chris Montgomery, Corey Nesmith, Damarrell Alexander and Ardy Holmes all had roles in the return game last season and should be in the mix again.

Final Analysis


Charlotte football has gone from an idea to a fully operational FBS program at warp speed. After two seasons as an FCS competitor, the enormity of the challenge it faces this season could show. This will be the 49ers’ first season with the full complement of 85 scholarship players. So while they’ll have talent, much of it will be young and untested against the level of competition it’s getting ready to face.

Also, up until now, Charlotte has eased into things with regard to scheduling. Previous slates were made up of FCS and Division II schools. This season, 11 of the team’s 12 games will be against FBS competition. In addition to Conference USA foes, the 49ers will face Temple and Kentucky.

Coming off of back-to-back 5–6 seasons, Charlotte has shown that, while it has room to improve, it’s not that far behind the learning curve. With the competition ratcheted up significantly this season, the 49ers hope to continue to show gradual improvement. Being competitive with Conference USA’s middle tier would be a sign that, despite the accelerated pace of progress, the program is right on schedule.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#113 Old Dominion Monarchs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#113

C-USA East PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Bobby Wilder, 52-20 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Scott | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rich Nagy

Bobby Wilder proved in short order that Old Dominion can compete in the FBS ranks after a six-win 2014 campaign. Replacing a superstar like Taylor Heinicke will be nearly impossible but seven other offensive starters are back. In C-USA's tougher division (East), the Monarchs were nice story a year ago, and Wilder has some equity built up heading into what appears to be a tougher sophomore campaign.

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Previewing Old Dominion’s Offense for 2015  

For four seasons, quarterback Taylor Heinicke was the face of Old Dominion football. Heinicke won the Walter Payton Award — the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy — and threw for nearly 15,000 yards, giving the Monarchs the luxury of predictably solid quarterback play as they navigated the transition to the FBS level. With Heinicke gone, Old Dominion’s offense faces the kind of questions it hasn’t dealt with in a several years.

Redshirt freshman Shuler Bentley will be the player most likely to fill Heinicke’s shoes. The 6'1" Shuler threw a South Carolina state-record 71 touchdown passes as a senior in high school and spent last season as the backup Heinicke never needed. Junior college transfer Joey Verhaegh will also have a shot at the starting gig. Whoever ends up with the job will have tools with which to work.

Sophomore running back Ray Lawry will again have a big role after rushing for 947 yards and being named Conference USA’s top freshman. He leads a stable of solid backs that also includes promising sophomore Vincent Lowe and speedy freshman Jeremy Cox. After the loss of standout receiver Antonio Vaughan to graduation, Zach Pascal, David Washington and Melvin Vaughn become the prime targets in the passing game.

The Monarchs lost an all-conference center in Josh Mann but return 10 linemen who have significant playing experience, leading coach Bobby Wilder to be optimistic about the offense in the post-Heinicke era.

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 Old Dominion’s Defense for 2015 
 

The Monarchs’ defense took its lumps last season, giving up 38 points per game, including 56 to Marshall and 66 to Western Kentucky. But that wasn’t a surprise as Old Dominion’s defense relied heavily on young players. However, the result is that, with much of the unit back, Wilder expects to see improvement.

“This is going to be a young, developing, growing football team that’s only going to get better,” Wilder says.

Senior Poncho Barnwell, who led the team in sacks last season, will be the most experienced member of the defensive line.

TJ Ricks and Martez Simpson, two of the team’s top tacklers last season, will team up with junior college transfers Richard Thomas and Shadow Williams to give the Monarchs a solid group of linebackers. Senior safety Fellonte Misher and junior cornerback Devon Brown, a UAB transfer, will be worth watching in the secondary.

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

Previewing Old Dominion’s Specialists for 2015  
 

Junior Ricky Segers was an effective kicker before tearing his ACL seven games into last season. In his place, Satchel Ziffer, now a junior, handled the job, kicking two game-winning field goals. Wilder expects them to compete for the job in the preseason. Ziffer will also be in a battle with Joe Pulisic and Jarrett Cervi for punting duties. Pascal, Nick England and Isaiah Harper will all be in the mix to become the Monarchs’ primary return man.

Final Analysis
 

Old Dominion’s first season as a full-fledged FBS school was a pleasant surprise. The Monarchs weren’t eligible to go to a bowl given their status as a first-year member of Conference USA, but their 6–6 overall record — including a 4–4 league mark in C-USA’s tougher East division — would have been good enough to get them there.

“It was a really good first step for our program,” Wilder says.

This season, with the loss of Heinicke, repeating that success could prove tricky. To his credit, Wilder is realistic. He pegs a reasonable goal for this team at contending for the division and earning a bowl trip. For a school that only restarted its football program seven seasons ago, pulling off such feats would be cause to celebrate.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#112 FIU Panthers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#112

C-USA East PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Ron Turner, 5-19 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Shankweiler | DEF. COORDINATOR: Matt House

The Panthers only won four times last year, and Ron Turner's squad is picked fifth in the East Division of Conference USA. But FIU has a young quarterback and 14 starters back for a team that was better in the final few weeks of the season. Can Turner continue the improvement and get FIU to a bowl game?

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Previewing FIU’s Offense for 2015  
 

Early enrollee freshman Alex McGough won the starting quarterback job quickly in spring camp 2014 and never looked back. And while the offense struggled statistically, McGough never lost his handle on the job. He enters the 2015 season with high expectations stemming from a couple of strong games in conference (Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee).

Coach Ron Turner runs a single-back, run-first offense, and he has a strong competition for playing time shaping up at tailback this season. Alex Gardner had an impressive start to the 2014 season, but a late-season shoulder injury opened the door for Bowling Green transfer Anthon Samuel, who averaged 6.0 yards per carry in the final four games. They will be options one and two in 2015, with the order likely to flip frequently.

The Panthers return their best offensive player in tight end Jonnu Smith, who has caught 100 passes and 10 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Smith was McGough’s safety valve in 2014 — he was targeted on 27 percent of the Panthers’ passing plays and caught 72 percent of those balls. With significant attrition at wide receiver, Smith might see those numbers rise again in 2015.

Sophomore Dennis Turner, once a Miami commitment, is the top returning wide receiver after being targeted 21 times in 2014. A year of progression for McGough should mean more utilization of Turner’s speed in 2015. But finding viable options beyond Tuner and Smith is priority No. 1 for the Panthers.

McGough will operate behind a line that’s best in run situations, led by left guard Jordan Budwig and right tackle Aaron Nielsen. Finding a replacement for center Donald Senat, who started 26 games in his career, will be another key in fall camp.

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 FIU’s Defense for 2015 
 

Pat Narduzzi is one of the finest defensive minds in football, and when he took the Pittsburgh head coaching job, he tabbed FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin to run his defense. It was a deserved promotion for Conklin, as FIU had a surprisingly stout defense under him in 2014. The Panthers allowed only 148 big gains (of 10-plus yards) in 2014 — third-fewest in C-USA — thanks in part to standout years from defensive ends Denzell Perine (6.5 sacks) and Michael Wakefield (8.0), and cornerback Richard Leonard.

FIU returns plenty of defensive production in 2015. Only Giovani Francois has departed from an impressive defensive line, and the Panthers return all their top linebackers. Replacing safeties Demarkus Perkins and Justin Halley will be tough, as they were the linchpins of last season’s defense. Safety play could dictate how strong FIU’s high-potential defense can be in 2015.

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

Previewing FIU’s Specialists for 2015  
 

Leonard is one of the nation’s most dangerous return men, though he was able to break through for only one touchdown last season. The Panthers used two punters regularly, and the platoon should return in 2015. Jose Laphitzondo is the long-distance field-flipper, while Chris Ayers is used in close-range situations. Austin Taylor is both the kickoff specialist and placekicker, and he performed decently in both roles. He made 29-of-30 PATs and 4-of-6 field goals from 40-plus yards, while netting six touchbacks. 

Final Analysis
 

A young offense should improve, thanks to an elite tight end in Smith and a backfield that has a year of experience under its belt. With a stout defense that should more than hold up its end of the bargain, the Panthers’ quest to reach a bowl game in 2015 will ultimately rest on McGough’s evolution. FIU will be tested early, but winnable early-season games against UCF and Indiana could be a springboard to a surprising year for the Panthers. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#107 FAU Owls

NATIONAL FORECAST

#107

C-USA East PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Charlie Partridge, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Wright | DEF. COORDINATOR: Roc Bellantoni

There are some things to get excited about at FAU for second-year coach Charlie Partridge. His offense has an identity and it should give them a chance to compete in most games in Conference USA. Quarterback Jaquez Johnson also returns for his senior campaign. But the Owls will have to overcome significant losses on defense if FAU wants to reach a bowl game.

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Previewing FAU’s Offense for 2015  


FAU did something strange last season: Despite hiring Arkansas assistant Charlie Partridge as head coach, they retained offensive coordinator and one-time interim head coach Brian Wright. So it wasn’t that surprising that the offense showed many of the same poor traits from Wright’s first two seasons.

The Owls were inconsistent last year, never quite figuring out what kind of spread offense they wanted to be. That indecision likely stemmed from the fact that for the second straight fall camp, the Owls had a quarterback battle. Jaquez Johnson beat out Greg Hankerson for the starting gig last summer, and for better or worse, he should win the battle a third time in 2015.

The Owls will be forced to run more frequently as more than half of their receiving production has departed. That shouldn’t be a problem with Johnson under center running the read-option game with backs Jay Warren and Greg “Buddy” Howell. Despite poor blocking at times last season, Warren and Howell were dependable (combined 1,084 yards on 241 carries) and should have plenty left in the tank for 2015.

Top receivers Lucky Whitehead and William Dukes have graduated, as has tight end Alex DeLeon, meaning that one-time walk-on Jenson Stoshak will be the Owls’ top receiving target in 2015. Sophomore scatback Henry Bussey should take on Whitehead’s starting slot receiver job after catching just four passes for 88 yards last season.

Partridge revamped the Owls’ offensive line last season, setting it up for a big 2015. FAU’s front had a better 2014 season than the statistics show, but with experience and a better understanding of scheme, it should be even better in 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.

Previewing FAU’s Defense for 2015 


The Owls lost their three best defensive players to graduation in linebacker Andrae Kirk, cornerback D’Joun Smith and safety Damian Parms. Senior tackle Brandin Bryant missed a big part of the 2014 season and is set to return, which could have a trickle-down effect. A healthy Bryant next to the steady Trevon Coley will close up some of the holes in a line that was atrocious against the run in 2014. If that duo can return to 2013 form, it could free up end Trey Hendrickson to have a breakout year.

FAU’s base defense is the nickel, putting more pressure on the two linebackers on the field. With Kirk gone, all eyes are on Robert Relf to improve his play and get into the backfield more often.

The Owls enter 2015 with plenty of faith in their corners — the physical Cre’von LeBlanc and crafty Raekwon Williams, who made a strong contribution as a true freshman. FAU has recruited defensive backs as well as anyone in Conference USA, but with the loss of both safeties, Parms and Christian Milstead, that recruiting will be put to the test. Top prospect Rodrick Archer and redshirt freshman Marquese Dudley-Gordon could see major playing time at the safety positions.
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing FAU’s Specialists for 2015  
 

The loss of Whitehead as a returner will be huge. LeBlanc, Bussey and corner Reggie Brown will likely get a crack at replacing him. The Owls can expect another strong year from the kicking specialists, though. Placekicker Greg Joseph returns after making 14-of-20 field goals and all but one PAT. Punter Dalton Schomp brings back his impressive 45.4-yard average. 

Final Analysis
 

Losing the team’s three best defensive players and the offense’s top big-play threat will make improvement difficult for FAU in 2015. The Owls’ running game is strong enough that they should be able to play with Conference USA opponents and expect to win at home. That would keep bowl hopes on the table, but Partridge will need to have his young squad ready to impress out of the gate.  




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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#100 UTEP Miners

NATIONAL FORECAST

#100

C-USA West PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Sean Kugler, 9-16 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Patrick Higgins | DEF. COORDINATOR: Scott Stoker

UTEP got to a bowl game in Sean Kugler's second season at his alma mater, finishing the campaign with seven wins. With Kugler's imprint fully established on the program, the Miners loo to replicate last season's success behind one of Conference USA's most productive running games and an opportunistic defense.

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Previewing UTEP’s Offense for 2015
 

The one big question that surrounds a UTEP team that returns key personnel on both sides of the ball is what it will do in the passing game, particularly at quarterback.

Sophomore Mack Leftwich, the son of offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich, redshirted last season after starting at the end of the 2013 season and will likely emerge from a three-way battle to take over from the graduated Jameill Showers. It will be new group of receivers as well, but UTEP wasn’t particularly good in the passing game last season and still went 7–6.

The good news is that four returning offensive linemen, led by C-USA All-Freshman guards Derek Elmendorff and Will Hernandez, and fullback Darrin Laufasa will be protecting Leftwich. More important, they will be opening holes for star running back Aaron Jones in an attack that starts and ends with power rushing. Jones was second-team all-conference last year after rushing for 1,321 yards and 11 touchdowns. He had 237 in the opener against New Mexico and also had 144 against Big 12 opponent Texas Tech.

When UTEP does throw, the big targets will be Autrey Golden, who switched from tailback to featured receiver in the middle of last year, and tight end M.J. McFarland, who started four games for Texas in 2014 before graduating and transferring. Beyond that, UTEP has virtually no pass-catching experience. Tyler Batson, Donovan Walker and Jaquan White lead the chase for the second receiver role, while transfer Hayden Plinke also figures to be a big target as a backup tight end.

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

Previewing UTEP’s Defense for 2015

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After struggling horribly on the this side of the ball for most of a decade, UTEP built its surprising winning season in 2014 around its defense. Five key members of the front six in the 4-2-5 defense return — linemen Roy Robertson-Harris, Nick Usher and Gino Bresolin as well as linebackers Jimmy Musgrave and Alvin Jones. Safeties Da’Shone Smith and Devin Cockrell are also back.

Even at corner, where UTEP lost both starters from last year, there is a deep group of players with significant experience, led by Ishmael Harrison and Traun Roberson.

After a brief midseason swoon last year, the defense rallied and played better down the stretch to help the Miners get to a bowl. This group only figures to get better in the third year of defensive coordinator Scott Stoker’s system. After forcing just 12 turnovers in 2013, the Miners got 21 last season and ranked third in the league in turnover margin (+0.69 per game).

Previewing UTEP’s Specialists for 2015
 

Golden is a player to watch, as his six career kickoff return touchdowns are one short of the NCAA record. Junior college transfer Terry Juniel was brought in to address an anemic punt return game. UTEP had all sorts of gaffes when it was punting the ball last year but largely fixed the issue at midseason when placekicker Jay Mattox took over the punting duties. UTEP’s net improved by almost 10 yards per punt after the move, and Mattox should again handle all kicking duties. 

Final Analysis
 

In just three springs, coach Sean Kugler has built exactly the team he wants at his alma mater: An offense that pounds the ball up the middle, a stout defense that makes plays and a squad that avoids penalties and turnovers. UTEP’s problems have come when it runs into teams with a similar mentality and better personnel, which happened in four of the six losses last season and figures to happen in the first game of the season at Arkansas. These Miners, though, should be better than last year, and for the first time since 2006, they’re building off a winning season.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#86 Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#86

C-USA West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Skip Holtz, 13-13 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tony Petersen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Blake Baker

Louisiana Tech went from 4-8 in 2014 to 9-5 and Conference USA West Division champions in Year 2 under Skip Holtz. This season, the Bulldogs are the favorites to repeat as division champions, as the offense returns most of its skill position players and one of C-USA's toughest defenses returns six starters. Another bowl berth should be expected, but can Louisiana Tech emerge as the team to beat in C-USA?

Related: Conference USA 2015 Predictions

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Previewing Louisiana Tech’s Offense for 2015
 

The Bulldogs are looking to duplicate last year’s formula of having a fifth-year transfer quarterback come in and take control of the offense. Last year, Iowa transfer Cody Sokol enjoyed a phenomenal season with 3,436 yards and 30 touchdowns as he led an unexpected turnaround that culminated with a Heart of Dallas Bowl win.

This year, Jeff Driskel, the former No. 1-rated pro-style QB by Rivals in 2011, is coming in from Florida for his final season of eligibility. He battled Ryan Higgins for first-team status in the spring, but Driskel is the safe bet to land the job in the fall. The 6'4", 234-pounder has a strong arm and the ability to run when needed (he ran for more than 50 yards in a game five times in his Florida career).

Driskel is stepping into an offense long on skill position players. Senior running back Kenneth Dixon had 1,684 total yards and 28 touchdowns, and wide receivers Paul Turner (a former LSU transfer) and Trent Taylor should be All-C-USA players. Speedy Carlos Henderson will also be a deep threat on the outside.

The Bulldogs will feature a veteran offensive line that likely will start three juniors and two seniors. The new left guard, David Mahaffey, started the C-USA Championship Game and the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

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

Previewing Louisiana Tech’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 name of Louisiana Tech’s game in 2014 was taking the ball away, as the Bulldogs led the nation in turnovers and were tied for the national lead in interceptions. Three starters return in the secondary looking for more thievery in 2015. Safety Xavier Woods did it all last season (six interceptions, two TDs, three forced fumble, one blocked kick) and will be an All-America candidate as a junior. Fellow safety standout Kentrell Brice is another big playmaker who should be All-C-USA, and corner Adairius Barnes (five interceptions) is another who will contend for all-league honors.

The defensive line returns two solid pieces in end Vontarrius Dora and tackle Vernon Butler, two seniors who stood out on a defense that was 17th against the rush a year ago under now-departed coordinator Manny Diaz. If there are questions on defense, they are at linebacker, where three new starters will be coming into the fold with little depth behind them. Nick Thomason should be solid in the middle, with fifth-year senior Beau Fitte on one side and either C.J. Cleveland or Russell Farris on the other.

Previewing Louisiana Tech’s Specialists for 2015
 

Louisiana Tech’s return game is in good shape, with the speedy Henderson back to return kicks after averaging 25.9 yards last year, including a 96-yard touchdown. Taylor is again expected to handle punt return duties after a solid season as a sophomore. Jonathan Barnes and Kyle Fischer combined to miss three extra points last season and were 10-of-20 on field goals from beyond 30 yards, so placekicking is an issue. Logan McPherson is back to punt after an inconsistent season. 

Final Analysis
 

The Bulldogs are expected to repeat as C-USA West champs, though their two most challenging league games — Western Kentucky and Rice — are both on the road. Two other significant road challenges will come at Kansas State (9–4 in 2014) and Mississippi State (10–3), although coach Skip Holtz should plan on another bowl trip this holiday season. Driskel’s acclimation to his new offense is the key. He has plenty of skill pieces in place to propel him to the consistent level of success he never enjoyed at Florida. The defense is again loaded with playmakers, but linebackers must emerge if it wants to be one of the league’s best units. This should be another fun season in Ruston.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#89 Rice Owls

NATIONAL FORECAST

#89

C-USA West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: David Bailiff, 48-53 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Larry Edmondson, Billy Lynch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Thurmond

Rice is enjoying its most successful three-year stretch in program history, highlighted by a 2013 Conference USA championship. David Bailiff's 2015 team will be looking to replicate's last year's eight wins, but to do so the Owls will need to rely on a large batch of new starters, especially on defense.

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Previewing Rice’s Offense for 2015
 

Fifth-year senior quarterback Driphus Jackson continues to build confidence after throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first season as the Owls’ starter. The dual-threat Jackson sat out most of the spring following offseason surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder but is expected to be ready for the start of fall camp.

At running back, Rice has arguably the best 1-2 combo in Conference USA in Jowan Davis, who came within 44 yards of his first 1,000-yard season, and Darik Dillard, who had 11 rushing touchdowns. The Owls present challenges with the ability to show multiple looks out of the backfield, particularly with former high school quarterback Luke Turner in the team’s Wild Owl package.

Dennis Parks, a physical receiver, is the top returner along with Zach Wright, who saw extensive playing time due to injuries. The other candidates — James Mayden, Temi Alaka and Cameron Decell — had a combined 13 catches a year ago. The biggest loss on offense was Jordan Taylor, who finished as the No. 2 receiver in school history (total yards and touchdown receptions).

Four-year starter Caleb Williams returns at right tackle, and Andrew Reue, a three-year starter, is projected at left guard. Redshirt freshman Calvin Anderson is the frontrunner to start at left tackle, although the Owls have some flexibility with Reue able to play all five positions on the offensive line.

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

Previewing Rice’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 defensive line expected to be one of the best in C-USA suffered major losses in the offseason. First, Christian Covington, despite missing most of 2014 with a knee injury, opted to skip his final year and enter the NFL Draft. Then All-C-USA first-teamer Brian Nordstrom, who had 7.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss, quit football to take a six-figure job in the oil and gas industry. Those moves left the Owls scrambling to fill holes this spring. Nose tackle Ross Winship is the only returning regular. Stuart Mouchantaf is expected to be healthy after missing most of the past two seasons with a knee injury, while Graysen Schantz and Brian Womac have the inside track for starting jobs at defensive end.

There’s strength at linebacker, led by Alex Lyons, who led the team in tackles and was an All-C-USA selection, and Nick Elder.

The Owls have made strides in pass coverage in recent years under veteran defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond, who seems to get the most out of talent. He’ll be faced with a huge challenge with four new starters in the secondary. The lone holdover is Ryan Pollard at cornerback. V.J. Banks, who played as a true freshman, is a candidate to play opposite Pollard. 

Previewing Rice’s Specialists for 2015
 

The most pressing special teams concern is finding more consistency on field goals and extra points. The Owls used a scholarship on kicker Jack Fox, rated the No. 15 high school kicker in the nation, and will give him a chance to win the job in fall camp. Punter James Farrimond has emerged as a difference maker, averaging 42 yards to earn a spot on the Ray Guy Award watch list last season.  

Final Analysis
 

Rice has come a long way since the days of being “everybody’s homecoming game,” head coach David Bailiff says. The best three-year stretch in school history has produced three straight bowl appearances (two wins), 25 victories and a 2013 C-USA title. Construction began this offseason on a $31.5 million end-zone training facility, and there are talks about a much-needed facelift for Rice Stadium. With so many questions — and a tough opening month — it might be asking too much to come close to the win totals from the last three seasons, but the Owls should be in position for another bowl trip. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#88 MTSU Blue Raiders

NATIONAL FORECAST

#88

C-USA East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Rick Stockstill, 57-55 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Buster Faulkner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tyrone Nix

Middle Tennessee won enough games to be bowl-eligible last season, but the Blue Raiders didn't get an invite. Rick Stockstill's team returns 13 starters, but a tough schedule including a date with Alabama makes MTSU's path back to the postseason a difficult one.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing MTSU’s Offense for 2015
 

Middle Tennessee’s quarterback competition is a two-man race that might go well into the season. Returning starter Austin Grammer, a dual-threat performer, accounted for 2,999 yards of total offense and 23 TDs last season. But he had some turnover issues in key games, and the passing game rarely stretched the field. Redshirt freshman Brent Stockstill, son of head coach Rick Stockstill, may be a better passer, but Grammer is a better runner. It’s likely that game action will determine the starter. “We’ve got to move the ball and pass it better,” Rick Stockstill says. “In the last four or five games last year, our passing game struggled and people loaded the box on us. So whoever is out there has to pass the ball down the field. But I am in no hurry to make a decision.”

The air attack faces an uphill battle. Ed Batties is a proven pass catcher, but he needs help from other wideouts. Passing game aside, the Blue Raiders return some key components of a strong ground attack. Jordan Parker, Shane Tucker and Jeremiah Bryson have combined for 3,638 rushing yards and 39 total TDs in their careers, and freshman power back J’Vonte Herrod may also enter the fray. Plus, three starting offensive linemen are back.

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

Previewing MTSU’s Defense for 2015

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The key cogs return in two senior standouts. Safety Kevin Byard’s 15 career interceptions stand only two shy of MTSU’s all-time record. Byard (246 tackles) and linebacker T.T. Barber (234) are both within reach of the team’s career mark in tackles (344).

They head a defense returning seven starters, but most of that personnel is better suited to stop the run than the pass. The top four defensive tackles return to clog gaps in the middle, but an every-down pass rusher is desperately needed. Juniors Steven Rhodes and Chris Hale showed some promise in that role in the spring, but junior college transfer Peter Bailey was signed specifically to bring pressure.

“I think defensive end is such a big area because we haven’t had that guy who can get to the quarterback on any down in a few years,” Stockstill says. “Adding that will be critical for what we need to do defensively.”

Depth is also needed at cornerback. Jared Singletary is solid, but the other starter and backups are concerns, especially for a secondary burned by big plays too often in 2014.

Previewing MTSU’s Specialists for 2015
 

Placekicker and punter are big concerns. Cody Clark is back, but he missed his last four field goals in 2014 and looked shaky in spring practice. He will compete for placekicking duties with freshman Matt Bonadies, who arrives as the frontrunner at punter. Record-breaking return man Reggie Whatley graduated, leaving a big-play vacancy. Batties, Bryson, Singletary and others will try to fill the void.

Final Analysis
 

MTSU has been bowl-eligible in five of the past six seasons, and the 2015 squad has enough talent and experience to add to that total. But the schedule doesn’t do the Blue Raiders any favors. Two weeks after a trip to Alabama, MTSU begins a three-game stretch against Illinois, Vanderbilt and high-powered rival Western Kentucky. The senior-laden squad could be Stockstill’s best in a few years, but the record might not show it.

“We’ve got some tough road games; it’s not just our out-of-conference games,” Stockstill says. “Western Kentucky could be favored to win the East, and we go there. Louisiana Tech could be favored to win the West, and we go there. But for us to contend (in Conference USA), we have got to stay healthy through those first five games so we can play well down the stretch in our conference.”




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