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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

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 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.

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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

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 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.”




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#70 Marshall Thundering Herd

NATIONAL FORECAST

#70

C-USA East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Doc Holliday, 40-25 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill Legg | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Heater

A year after a near-perfect season, Marshall still hopes to be in contention for a Conference USA title. The Thundering Herd lost 67-66 to WKU in overtime for their only loss of the season in 2014. Marshall has the personnel and schedule to challenge for another C-USA title — but it may again come down to a date with the Hilltoppers to end the season.


Related: 2015 C-USA Predictions
 

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Previewing Marshall’s Offense for 2015 
 

Michael Birdsong, a 6'5", 242-pound transfer from James Madison, steps in at quarterback to replace Rakeem Cato, who produced nearly 15,000 total yards and 146 touchdowns in his career. Birdsong possesses a live arm and the starting experience to help Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg keep his attack in the top 15 nationally for a fourth-straight year.

Birdsong will have plenty of help from a veteran group of skill players that includes senior running back Devon Johnson and junior Remi Watson as well as a bevy of talented receivers. Johnson rushed for 1,767 yards — sixth best in FBS — and 17 touchdowns last year, while Watson added another 546 yards on the ground for an offense that averaged 6.8 yards per rush in 2014.

While there is a new quarterback, the targets at receiver are familiar. Davonte Allen, Angelo Jean-Louis and Deon-Tay McManus provide the Herd with guys who can stretch the field. Marshall has to replace Tommy Shuler, who left as Conference USA’s all-time leader in receptions, but the Herd coaching staff is high on Hyleck Foster, who had a strong year as a freshman reserve.

Along the offensive front, Marshall has moved right guard Michael Selby to center to replace four-year starter Chris Jasperse, who logged more than 4,000 career snaps. Right tackle Clint Van Horn and left guard Sebastian Johansson are proven starters, but the unproven entity will be sophomore Sandley Jean-Felix, who will assume the left tackle spot.

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 Marshall’s Defense for 2015 
 

Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater transformed a team that was next to last in the nation in scoring defense in 2012 to a defense that was No. 18 in 2014, but his hands are full in 2015.

Top cornerback Darryl Roberts is gone, along with linebacker Neville Hewitt, who was Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. While Hewitt’s loss looks biggest on paper, Roberts had keyed the defensive turnaround with an ability to win one-on-one battles, which freed up Heater to send multiple blitzes at the opposition. To continue this scheme, cornerbacks Keith Baxter, Antavis Rowe and Chris Williams-Hall will need to emerge quickly as physical defenders.

Hewitt became a leader in the middle of the defense last season, but Marshall is high on Shawn Petty, a transfer from Maryland who excelled in the spring. Petty joins D.J. Hunter and Evan McKelvey in a linebacking corps that should be among the best in the conference. McKelvey returns after missing much of 2014 with a knee injury.

The biggest defensive concerns will be the lack of a proven pass rusher, so big things will be asked of UCF transfer Blake Keller. Gary Thompson has shown his playmaking ability in spurts, and Joe Massaquoi is a guy who had a solid preseason.

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

Previewing Marshall’s Specialists for 2015
 

Marshall returns one of the nation’s top punters in Tyler Williams, a Ray Guy Award candidate who has averaged 43.7 yards per punt in his career. Nick Smith is the likely replacement for Justin Haig at kicker, but Amoreto Curraj, who will handle kickoff duties, is also a candidate. The Herd’s kick return game looks strong with Deandre Reaves, who returned a kickoff for a score in the bowl win. Foster is the likely punt returner.

Final Analysis 
 

Johnson’s return and a bevy of talented receivers help ease the pressure on Birdsong for an offense that has eclipsed 500 yards per game on average for each of the last three seasons. If the defense provides anything this season, the Herd — who face another soft schedule — should be in contention for a Conference USA Championship and potential New Year’s Six bowl berth. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#69 WKU Hilltoppers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#69

C-USA East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Jeff Brohm, 8-5 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tyson Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Holt

As far as entertainment value, there was no better ticket in college football late last season than Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers defeated Marshall in overtime and then defeated Central Michigan in a bowl game. The two games totaled 230 points and each were decided by one point. With seven starters — including a quarterback and running back — returning on offense, WKU is built for fireworks again.
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Previewing WKU’s Offense for 2015 
 

Conference USA opponents, especially the defensive coordinators, must have gasped when the NCAA granted WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty a sixth season with a medical hardship waiver. Combined with running back Leon Allen, no QB-RB duo in FBS history has matched their staggering numbers of last season. Doughty led the nation with 4,830 passing yards, and Allen ran for 1,542, giving them a combined 6,372 yards, surpassing the previous record of 5,840 yards set by Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III (4,293) and running back Terrance Ganaway (1,547) in 2011. 

The Hilltoppers set or tied 50 offensive team and individual records. Only five quarterbacks since 1956 have thrown more than Doughty’s 49 touchdown passes that also led the nation. 

So much for the Hilltoppers’ offense taking a step back with the departure after one year of coach Bobby Petrino to Louisville. Rookie coach Jeff Brohm put the offense into an even higher gear, and more of the same can be expected with the return of three starters on the line — left tackle Forrest Lamp and guards Brandon Ray and Darrell Williams.

Also back is Doughty’s favorite target, senior receiver Jared Dangerfield, who had a school-record 69 catches for 825 yards and 11 touchdowns. Allen also is a receiving threat; his 476 yards pushed him over 2,000 yards from scrimmage.

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 WKU’s Defense for 2015 
 

The Hilltoppers have a lot of catching up to do on the opposite side of the ball. The return of seven starters, plus the addition of UAB transfer Jontavious Morris, should improve a unit that nationally ranked 120th in total defense and 121st in scoring defense.

The top four tacklers return, including senior middle linebacker Nick Holt, the heart and soul of the defense. The son of defensive coordinator Nick Holt Sr., Holt had 111 tackles. Also returning to flank Holt at outside linebacker is senior Dejon Brown, who was second on the team with 78 tackles.

Morris isn’t listed as a returning starter for WKU, but he would have been for UAB had it not disbanded its program. At 6'2", 295 pounds, he will plug the middle at tackle after playing nose guard for the Blazers.

Strong safety Branden Leston and free safety Marcus Ward each had 63 tackles. Lesten led the team with four interceptions, while senior cornerback Wonderful Terry was indeed wonderful on his two interceptions, returning both for touchdowns. 

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

Previewing WKU’s Specialists for 2015 
 

Kicker Garrett Schwettman and punter Joseph Occhipinti return. Schwettman had plenty of extra-point attempts to go with making 16-of-21 field-goal tries. The Hilltoppers didn’t do a lot of punting, but when they did, Occhipinti averaged 37.1 yards per try. Sophomore Kylen Towner has emerged as a reliable returner on kickoffs and punts. He averaged 22.7 on kickoff returns, including one of 94 yards for a score.

Final Analysis
 

Few programs have transitioned to the FBS level as well as WKU, which is just six years into its move up from FCS. Of 27 teams to make the jump since 1987, only eight reached a second bowl game during a six-year window. Eight of 20 head coaching openings in the country last year were filled by first-time head coaches, and Brohm was the only one of the eight to win a bowl game.

With all the offensive weapons returning, especially Doughty and Allen, the Hilltoppers will continue to score points. If the defense can at least start to slow teams down, WKU is poised to make that next jump to becoming a consistent Conference USA challenger. 




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