MAC

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#111 Central Michigan Chippewas

NATIONAL FORECAST

#111

MAC West PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: John Bonamego, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Morris Watts | DEF. COORDINATOR: Greg Colby

John Bonamego steps onto Central Michigan's campus with a clean slate to work with after Dan Enos' departure. This team won seven games last year but only returns 10 starters and faces a much improved MAC schedule. Reaching a bowl game will be a tall ask.

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Previewing Central Michigan’s Offense for 2015  


Junior Cooper Rush, last seen throwing an FBS bowl-record seven touchdown passes in the Bahamas Bowl, is back at the helm for his third season as Central Michigan’s starting quarterback. He is poised for a stellar season as long as he gets enough help from the talent around him.

Lost to graduation is four-year star wide receiver Titus Davis, so figuring out who can replace his production on the outside is a must. Candidates include senior Jesse Kroll (36 catches, 582 yards, four TDs) and junior Anthony Rice (30 catches, 321 yards), as they are the returnees with the most on-field experience and have familiarity with Rush. But watch out for a trio of sophomores in Mark Chapman, Corey Willis and Eric Cooper; all three are athletic wide receivers with big-play potential.

The running back spot will feature a battle among senior Saylor Lavallii, junior Martez Walker and sophomore Devon Spalding. If a clear-cut starter emerges, it might be Spalding as he had a couple impressive efforts toward the end of 2014 and finished the campaign with 371 rushing yards on 73 attempts plus four TDs.

Central Michigan must replace starters at left guard and right tackle, but the Chippewas have the benefit of senior left tackle Ramadan Ahmeti and senior center Nick Beamish entering their third seasons as starters.

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Previewing Central Michigan’s Defense for 2015 


Central Michigan used a 4-2-5 defensive scheme the past three years but will return to a 4-3-4 base under new coordinator Greg Colby. After the Chippewas finished first in the MAC in total defense a year ago (355.5 yards per game), there will be some turnover in personnel, but there’s also a core of returning starters who should allow for a fairly seamless transition with Colby in charge.

The Chippewas should be strong on the defensive line, which will be anchored on the outside by senior end Blake Serpa (four sacks last year) and junior Joe Ostman. That duo combined for 22.5 tackles for a loss.

A big question mark for CMU will be at the linebacker spots as senior Tim Hamilton (37 tackles) takes over as the leader of that group. There is inexperience aplenty when figuring out who is going to fill the other two starting spots.

Two seniors return in the secondary, with Central Michigan being particularly steady at safety. Senior Kavon Frazier and junior Tony Annese both have a nose for the football and a lot of games under their belts.


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

Previewing Central Michigan’s Specialists for 2015  
 

Brian Eavey (8-of-9 field goals) resumes his duties after taking over for the injured Ron Coluzzi in Week 2 of the 2014 campaign. Although Coluzzi returned two weeks later, he stuck with only punting (37.6-yard average) after handling both prior to his injury. But if Eavey falters in the kicking game, the Chippewas can feel confident in having the strong-legged Coluzzi as a backup plan. Redshirt freshman Cooper Mojsiejenko, the son of a former NFL punter, could also challenge for punting duties. Amari Coleman, Willis and Chapman are candidates to be used in the return game.

Final Analysis
 

Following five seasons of mostly mediocre results under previous coach Dan Enos, the slate is clean for John Bonamego to put his stamp on the job for years to come. The biggest key will be finding enough production at wide receiver to give the very talented Rush a chance to put up the big numbers of which he is capable. With some proven and promising talent on board, Central Michigan has a chance to surprise people. But a middle-of-the-pack finish in the MAC West Division is most likely.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#127 Eastern Michigan Eagles

NATIONAL FORECAST

#127

MAC West PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Chris Creighton, 2-10 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kalen DeBoer | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brad McCaslin

If history is any indication, Year Two is a good time for a Chris Creighton team. His team at Wabash improved from 8-2 to 12-1, and his team at Drake improved from 6-5 to 8-3. Eastern Michigan, though, is one of college football’s worst programs. Reaching four wins — and thus doubling the win total — would mark an achievement EMU has reached just once since 2007.

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Previewing Eastern Michigan’s Offense for 2015 
 

Reginald Bell breathed some life into EMU’s offense when he settled into the starting role at quarterback midway through the 2014 season. The dual-threat signal caller put up more than 300 total yards of offense in a 37–27 win over Buffalo — highlighted by a pair of 70-yard touchdown runs — and threw for 409 yards in a 45–30 loss to Ball State late in the season. Bell, a former state champion in track out of California, has the chance to be a dynamic playmaker as a sophomore if the offense can develop around him. 

Eastern Michigan needs more production out of its undersized receiving corps. The Eagles’ 2015 recruiting class includes five talented wide receivers, but they might not be ready to jump straight into the lineup. Senior Dustin Creel has the potential to turn into a go-to target. He had 46 catches and 593 yards as a sophomore in 2013 but was slowed by a knee injury last fall. 

The other challenge for the Eagles offense will be replacing three starters — Campbell Allison, Lincoln Hansen and Robert McFadden — on the offensive line. They are building around returning starter Andrew Wylie, who will step in for Hansen at right tackle. 

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 Eastern Michigan’s Defense for 2015 
 

There is no way to sugarcoat just how poorly the  Eastern Michigan defense performed last season. The Eagles allowed 40.9 points and 498.8 yards per game and forced only 12 turnovers. All three figures ranked among the 10 worst in the nation. 

The players, who were learning their third defensive system in three years, looked lost at times. A second year with the same defense — plus the return of seven starters — should provide EMU with the building blocks for turning the unit around. 

The Eagles have strong depth at linebacker, where leading tackler Great Ibe is part of a group of returning starters that also includes Hunter Matt and Anthony Zappone. Ike Spearman, who missed all last season with a leg injury, was given a medical redshirt and will be back in the mix as well. 

Eastern Michigan’s most talented player on either side of the ball is defensive lineman Pat O’Connor, who had 64 tackles, 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles last season. He can line up on the inside or outside and is someone for whom offenses need to account. But he needs some help. 

The secondary has a lot of moving pieces and is still an area of concern. Safety Jason Beck and cornerback DaQuan Pace are the returning starters in the group. Beck started as a true freshman last season and continues to make strides. Junior college transfer Ikie Calderon brought a lot of energy in the spring at safety.  

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

Previewing Eastern Michigan’s Specialists for 2015 
 

Tyler Allen rewrote EMU’s record books as the team’s primary kickoff returner the past two seasons. Replacing him will not be easy. Placekicker Dylan Mulder returns after a solid season in which he hit 8-of-12 attempts, including three from beyond 40 yards. The Eagles were poor covering both kickoffs and punts last season, areas that need to improve going forward. 

Final Analysis 
 

Eastern Michigan lacks the top-level talent and depth to make a big move in the MAC West this season, but second-year coach Chris Creighton is moving the team in the right direction. The Eagles have finished 2–10 in each of the past three seasons, but a more favorable schedule — with three home games in September and six overall — could help them exceed that win total. For a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 1995, three or four wins would certainly be something to build on.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#119 Kent State Golden Flashes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#119

MAC East PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Paul Haynes, 6-17 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Don Treadwell | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian George

Kent State’s 11-3 season and MAC East title in 2012 is a distant memory. The Golden Flashes are 6-17 in two seasons under Paul Haynes and regressed from three MAC wins in 2013 to one in 2014 (over Akron by a field goal in the last game of the season). Improvement will be expected for the Flashes in the third season under Haynes, but they will need the offensive line to grow up fast and a veteran defense to improve to make a major move.

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Previewing Kent State’s Offense for 2015 
 

The Kent State offense needs bruising 250-pound tailback Trayion Durham to return to his sophomore year form. In 2012, Durham teamed with Dri Archer (now with the Pittsburgh Steelers) to lead the Golden Flashes to the MAC East title and the school’s first bowl berth since 1972. But Durham was slowed by injuries in 2013 and held to 766 yards rushing. In 2014, a foot injury kept him out of all 11 games as KSU went 2–9. A healthy Durham and Nick Holley (team-high 516 yards rushing in 2014) could form a productive duo in the Golden Flashes backfield.

A potent running attack would take the pressure off junior quarterback Colin Reardon, who has had two inconsistent seasons as the starter. In 2014, Reardon threw more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (14) and was the leader of an offense that ranked 12th in the MAC and 116th nationally in total yardage.

Reardon lost his two favorite targets in tight end Casey Pierce and receiver Chris Humphrey, but there is strength in numbers because coach Paul Haynes and his staff have recruited well at those positions. Look for strong seasons from Kris White, James Brooks, Ernest Calhoun and prized recruit Johnny Woods.

The line is bound to be improved since it was one of the youngest in the MAC last season. Seven of the 10 linemen on the two-deep from 2014 are back, and that doesn’t include senior right guard Anthony Pruitt, a former regular in the rotation who missed 2014 with an injury.

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 Kent State’s Defense for 2015 
 

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that the top 11 tacklers from 2014 are back, along with two starters who missed 2014. The bad news is the players on that defense were part of a group that allowed 430.3 yards per game. Still, coordinator Brian George expects major improvement throughout his defense because those players are one year older and have one year more experience.

The defense is led by what could be the best pair of safeties in the MAC. Junior free safety Nate Holley earned first-team all-conference honors in 2014 after recording 137 tackles, the most at KSU since 1996. Senior strong safety Jordan Italiano ranked second in tackles (96) and added three interceptions.

The front four will be led by tackles Nate Terhune and Chris Fairchild, who missed the 2014 season. Highly touted junior college transfer Anthony Johnson, a defensive end, will be expected to make a big contribution.

At linebacker, Matt Dellinger (third in tackles with 89) returns in the middle, and Elcee Refuge (fourth with 58) is back on the outside. Outside backer DeVante’ Strickland, who had 53 tackles as a starter in 2013, missed 2014 with an injury.

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

Previewing Kent State’s Specialists for 2015 
 

First-team All-MAC punter Anthony Melchiori had a 44.3-yard average, which was first in the conference and 12th nationally. He was not as productive as a placekicker, making 10-of-18 field goals, so he may be pushed by Brad Miller.

Final Analysis
 

The Golden Flashes have nowhere to go but up after beating only Army and Akron in their abbreviated 11-game 2014 schedule (they had a game snowed out). Haynes had big shoes to fill after replacing Darrell Hazell in 2013, and his two-year record of 6–17 places him on the hot seat.

Improvement does seem to be a given because so many starters return, along with a large group of reserves who saw extensive playing time. The keys on offense are improvement by Reardon at quarterback and a productive Durham-Holley running combination. The defense has plenty of experience but must get tougher, especially against the run. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#105 Buffalo Bulls

NATIONAL FORECAST

#105

MAC East PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Lance Leipold, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Andy Kotelnicki | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian Borland

Lance Leipold joins the top rank of college football after winning at an elite level at Wisconsin-Water in Division III. He has some nice pieces at Buffalo to compete in the MAC, but he needs to prove his winning system can succeed at the FBS level.

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Previewing Buffalo’s Offense for 2015  
 

First-year head coach Lance Leipold’s transition from Division III to the FBS will be eased by the presence of two productive seniors in quarterback Joe Licata and tailback Anthone Taylor.

Licata, a fourth-year starter who is cool in the pocket and fundamentally sound, already holds the school record for touchdown passes (60), ranks third in career completions (543) and fourth in career passing yardage (6,516).

Taylor had huge shoes to fill in replacing Branden Oliver, the school’s career rushing leader. But when he received his shot as the primary back, he flourished by finishing with 1,403 yards, the second-highest mark in Buffalo history. Local product Jordan Johnson and versatile senior Devin Campbell, who will see time at slot receiver, will also be part of the running game.

There are enough experienced receivers at Licata’s disposal in Ron Willoughby, Jacob Martinez and Marcus McGill, not to mention tight end Matt Weiser and newcomer Collin Lisa, who transferred in from UAB. The Bulls tied for No. 3 in the MAC in total offense and should be extremely balanced once again.

The offensive line was hit hard by graduation with the loss of veterans Trevor Sales, Andre Davis and Jake Silas, and the returning players have done plenty of shuffling. Right tackle John Kling returns, while right guard Robert Blodgett has moved to left tackle. Brandon Manosalvas has moved from center to left guard and will be replaced in the middle by redshirt freshman James O’Hagan. Senior Dillon Guy gets the nod at right guard.

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 Buffalo’s Defense for 2015 
 

The Bulls, who shift from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3, return only three starters on defense. The defensive line has to be mostly rebuilt, although it returns Brandon Crawford and Max Perisse, who are moving inside from end. Sophomores Demone Harris and Solomon Jackson look to fill the vacant end spots.

There are also questions at linebacker, where Jake Stockman and Lee Skinner must be replaced. Jarrett Franklin is back, while Okezie Alozie moves from safety to linebacker. The two are the team’s top returning tacklers with 49 apiece.

Marqus Baker and Boise Ross are locks at cornerback. Baker missed seven games 2014 with an illness, which forced Ross to convert from wide receiver to fill in at corner. Although Baker has experience, he’s starting for the first time in his career. Buffalo needs to find a pair of safeties and will miss All-MAC selection Adam Redden. Andrews Dadeboe has played extended minutes, while Ryan Williamson played in all 11 games as a true freshman. Jordan Collier, another UAB transfer, figures to be in the mix at safety.

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

Previewing Buffalo’s Specialists for 2015  
 

The Bulls have to replace Patrick Clarke, who ranks second in program history in field goals. Adam Mitcheson, who redshirted as a freshman, assumes Clarke’s role, while Tyler Grassman is back for his fourth season at punter. Campbell is just 80 yards shy of the school record in career kick return yardage and could see time at punt returner as well.

Final Analysis
 

It was a surprise to see the abrupt ending to the Jeff Quinn era, especially one season removed from the second bowl appearance in school history. Replacing Quinn with Leipold was equally unforeseen, but the former Wisconsin-Whitewater coach was without peer on the Division III level (109–6 in eight seasons). There will be an adjustment period for the defense, which has to learn a new scheme and must replace several key contributors. But the offense, led by the serene Licata, is as good as any in the MAC. The schedule is not easy, but the Bulls are certainly capable of being a factor in the MAC East Division.




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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#98 Ohio Bobcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#98

MAC East PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Frank Solich, 72-56 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Albin, Scott Isphording | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jimmy Burrow

Ohio won six games last season, but the Bobcats weren't always competitive in 2014. This season should be different, however as Frank Solich welcomes back starters from last year's team that experienced its share of growing pains. Bowl eligibility should be one of the goals for 2015, as Ohio is poised to be a factor in the MAC East race once again.

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Previewing Ohio’s Offense for 2015


The Bobcats should be much more proficient this fall as nearly every piece of their 2014 offense returns.

Senior Derrius Vick should be the starting quarterback. Because of injury, Vick split last season with junior JD Sprague. Vick had the better numbers and should get the official nod in fall camp. Both are aggressive runners, critical in Ohio’s one-back offense.

Up front, Ohio returns all five starters from last season and its top seven linemen overall. A strong left side — with seniors in left tackle Mike McQueen, left guard Mike Lucas and center Lucas Powell — will serve as an anchor. Ohio at times played four true freshmen last season. One, Jake Pruehs, started every game at right guard but is being groomed to be the center of the future.

Running back A.J. Ouellette had the second-highest rushing total for a freshman in Ohio history last season (785 yards) and begins this fall as the clear-cut No. 1 option. He averaged 126 yards in his final three games, highlighted by a 155-yard, two-touchdown performance in a win against Buffalo. Senior Daz Patterson and redshirt freshman Papi White are change-of-pace backs who can double in the slot. Sophomore Dorian Brown and redshirt freshman Maleek Irons will push Ouellette in camp, with Irons a threat to get red-zone touches.

The one spot where Ohio needs more development is at wide receiver. None of the Bobcats’ returning receivers posted big numbers, but juniors Sebastian Smith and Jordan Reid have the size and experience to emerge.

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

Previewing Ohio’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.

If Ohio can find suitable replacements in a couple of key areas, the Bobcats could have a nasty defense. The biggest question marks are in the middle, where defensive tackles Cam McLeod and Antwan Crutcher held up well at the point of attack last year. Seniors Brandon Purdum and Watson Tautuiaki and junior Casey Sayles — who will play at end — will have to fill that void. On the edge, junior Tarell Basham was underwhelming last season as he saw a steady diet of double-teams, but he remains one of the best pass rushers in the MAC.

Ohio has solid options at linebacker, cornerback and safety. Senior Jovon Johnson and junior Blair Brown are two speedy playmakers at outside linebacker, and Quentin Poling was sensational last year as a redshirt freshman in the middle.

Ohio returns three corners who started games last fall. Senior Ian Wells might be the Bobcats’ best pro prospect on one side, while Brett Layton eventually supplanted Devin Bass on the other side last season. They don’t have that kind of depth at safety, however. Senior Devin Jones returns, but injuries — three potential starters at safety all missed spring camp — leave the position a bit thin. Sophomore Kylan Nelson, a former corner, has moved to free safety, and three of Ohio’s 2015 recruits are expected to get a shot at playing time.

Previewing Ohio’s Specialists for 2015


Josiah Yazdani is back for his third season at kicker and has developed into a dependable weapon. Last season, he won two games with field goals on the last play of regulation. There’s also no question that Mitch Bonnstetter will be the punter again. Bonnstetter’s average was pedestrian, but his quick release helped after punt blocks were a major issue in 2013.

Final Analysis


Coming off a 6–6 season in which the Bobcats were blown out several times, Ohio should rebound nicely in 2015. With experienced depth across the board, an aggressive, quick defense, and an emerging star in Ouellette, the Bobcats won’t be learning on the fly like they were in 2014. Ohio will be a factor in the MAC East, and a bump in wins and a bowl berth should be the expectation.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#97 Akron Zips

NATIONAL FORECAST

#97

MAC East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Terry Bowden, 11-25 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: A.J. Milwee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Amato

After consecutive 5-7 showings, Akron needs to show signs of improvement in Terry Bowden's fourth season at the school. With an experienced quarterback leading the way on offense and several key transfers getting on the field, the Zips could be in position to make some noise in the MAC East this season.

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Previewing Akron’s Offense for 2015

 

Senior quarterback Kyle Pohl is a two-year starter with no guarantees of earning a third year at the helm. Pohl’s inconsistency was one of the reasons Akron went 5–7 in 2013 and ’14. Over those two seasons, he completed 55 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. In 2014, Akron was last in the MAC and 118th nationally in passing efficiency. This fall, if Akron is to have its first winning record since 2005, improved play from the quarterback is a priority. If Pohl struggles, coach Terry Bowden could use athletic sophomore Tra’Von Chapman (a former Pitt signee) or 2014 backup Tommy Woodson.

The Zips have a hole to fill at running back after the departure of Jawon Chisholm, the team’s leading rusher in four consecutive seasons. However, Chisholm never reached the 1,000-yard mark, and his replacements may be an upgrade. Colorado State transfer Donnell Alexander, an inside power runner, and Conor Hundley, an instinctive slasher, could provide a chain-moving 1-2 punch. Manny Morgan and Hakeem Lawrence also could contribute.

The receiving corps in recent years has been high on potential and low on productivity. The two top pass catchers are gone, and coordinator A.J. Milwee is looking for the likes of Austin Wolf, Mykel Traylor-Bennett, Imani Davis, Andrew Pratt and Fransohn Bickley to emerge as reliable and consistent threats.

Bowden and his staff have worked hard to build up the depth and quality of the line, and it paid off in 2014. Three starters from that group return, and the feeling is that Akron will be able to use more wrinkles on offense because of the line’s experience.

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

Previewing Akron’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.

Akron returns six starters and many reserves and welcomes several key transfers to a defense that was second in the MAC in yards allowed per game (371.1) and first in points allowed per game (23.1). The anchors of the defense are nose guard Cody Grice and linebacker Jatavis Brown, both of whom were first-team All-MAC in 2014. Grice, who also was used as a short-yardage fullback, had 31 tackles last season. Brown led the Zips in both tackles (99) and tackles for a loss (14.5).

The defensive front also includes Se’Von Pittman, a former Ohio State Buckeye who had 36 tackles last season. Two other transfers, tackle Rodney Coe (Iowa State) and end Jamal Marcus (Ohio State), could start.

At linebacker, the two positions opposite Brown are unsettled because of the loss of Justin March and C.J. Mizell, who were second and third in tackles, respectively. Washington State transfer Darryl Monroe is being counted on to help.

The secondary is in a state of flux with the loss of the two starting safeties and their backups. The hope is that highly touted sophomore Jerome Lane — the son of former Pittsburgh basketball star “Send it in Jerome” Lane — will continue his growth at strong safety and starting cornerback Bryce Cheek can make the transition to free safety. Miami transfer Larry Hope and returning starter DeAndre Scott, who led the team in pass breakups in 2014, are ahead of the competition at cornerback. 

Previewing Akron’s Specialists for 2015

 

The Zips feature two of the best specialists in the conference in seniors Zach Paul and Robert Stein. Paul was a second-team All-MAC punter after averaging 42.5 yards per kick. Stein connected on 13-of-16 field goals.

Final Analysis

The third year of the Bowden era was a major disappointment as the Zips finished with a second straight 5–7 record. Led by some key returnees and a host of talented transfers, Akron should take a step forward in 2015 and contend in the MAC East Division. Anything short of a winning record will be considered a disappointment. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#94 Ball State Cardinals

NATIONAL FORECAST

#94

MAC West PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Pete Lembo, 30-20 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joey Lynch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Kelly

Ball State returns 17 starters from last season's team that finished strong, winning four of its final six games. The Cardinals hope to be a factor in the MAC West again, but will have to do so without its top playmaker from a year ago. Pete Lembo will rely on a veteran offensive line and improving defense as Ball State looks to get back to a bowl game this season.

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Previewing Ball State’s Offense for 2015

 

For the second year in a row, Ball State must adjust after losing one of its all-time great skill-position players. While the Cardinals struggled last season to find a successor for quarterback Keith Wenning, they’re in a better position this fall to handle the graduation of tailback Jahwan Edwards (4,558 career rushing yards, 51 TDs).

Coach Pete Lembo believes the tag team of bulked-up junior Teddy Williamson, scatback sophomore Darian Green and prized freshman James Gilbert will handle the load, even though they’ve combined for 328 yards and one touchdown to date. “We’ve got a veteran offensive line and tight ends,” Lembo says. “We expect our running backs to step in and be productive.”

Not only do the Cardinals welcome back all of their starting linemen and top three tight ends, they also retain the two quarterbacks who split last season and all of their wide receivers. Sophomore Jack Milas began last season as junior Ozzie Mann’s backup, but the coaches decided to make a change at quarterback after Ball State’s 1–4 start. Milas jumped in and threw for 326 yards and four scores in his first start. But he endured some growing pains, as well as literal pain when he broke his wrist in Week 11. Mann led the Cards to a season-ending win at Bowling Green, but Milas keeps the starting job. He has two All-MAC receivers in Jordan Williams (second team) and KeVonn Mabon (third team), but don’t be surprised if sophomores Corey Lacanaria and Jordan Hogue produce just as much.

Center Jacob Richard, a third-team all-league pick the last two seasons, spearheads a line that boasts 101 career starts.

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

Previewing Ball State’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.

During league play last season, Ball State’s defense ranked among the MAC’s bottom four in all the major categories. While the Cardinals dealt with some extenuating circumstances — free safety Dae’Shaun Hurley tore his ACL in Week 1, third-team All-MAC cornerback Eric Patterson went out for the year in Week 9 — it’s fair to say injuries weren’t the sole cause of their relative ineffectiveness.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Lembo says. “We started off pretty solid. Once the injuries started piling up, it really took its toll on us. A lot of guys were thrown in ahead of their time.”

Ball State welcomes back seven starters, including all but one member of the front seven. The Cardinals managed just 16 sacks last year, so they’re looking for more from senior defensive tackle Darnell Smith (4.0 sacks) and senior rush end Michael Ayers (2.0 sacks).

Senior weak-side linebacker Ben Ingle was a second-team all-league pick in 2013 but produced 29 fewer tackles last fall and received no honors. He and junior middle linebacker Zack Ryan have the capability to deliver more. Hurley’s solid rehab suggests he’ll be ready at free safety, while sophomore Dedrick Cromartie, who stepped up after the injuries, shifts to strong safety.

“The key here is to build more depth and more cohesiveness,” Lembo says.

Previewing Ball State’s Specialists for 2015

 

MAC Special Teams Player of the Year Scott Secor has graduated, leaving true freshman Morgan Hagee and junior walk-on Alex Egan battling to be the kicker. Junior punter Kyle Schmidt posted a 41.5-yard average in his first two years.

Final Analysis

 

Blessed with 17 returning starters from a group that won four of its final six games, Ball State ought to be able to shrug off last year’s step back and be a factor in the tough MAC West. The key is how Milas grows into the starting quarterback role. “I’m not going to say he has arrived by any means,” Lembo says, “but he’s more comfortable out there.”




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#92 UMass Minutemen

NATIONAL FORECAST

#92

MAC East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Mark Whipple, 52-35 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mark Whipple | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Masella

With just five wins in three seasons on the FBS level, could this be the year UMass takes a big step forward? The Minutemen return 18 starters, as Mark Whipple's team hopes to secure the program's first bowl appearance since 1972.

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Previewing UMass’ Offense for 2015

 

Before coach Mark Whipple and quarterback Blake Frohnapfel arrived, the Minutemen had the 12th-ranked passing attack in the MAC in 2013. The arrival of the coach-quarterback tandem elevated the Minutemen to the No. 1 passing offense in the conference. Frohnapfel, a transfer from Marshall, led the league with 334.5 passing yards per game. He threw 23 touchdowns with 10 interceptions before missing the last two games with a broken leg.

Frohnapfel is healthy again for his senior season and will lead an offense that loses tight end Jean Sifrin but not much else. Rodney Mills moves from H-back, where he was a reliable receiving threat, to take over for Sifrin at tight end. Senior wideout Tajae Sharpe, who caught 85 passes for 1,281 yards and seven touchdowns, figures to be one of the MAC’s top receivers again.

Running back is the biggest offensive question for the Minutemen. They return four backs who started at least one game last year, but nobody could stay healthy or consistent enough to hold onto the job. Shadrach Abrokwah, who worked his way from walk-on freshman in 2013 to starter a year ago, will likely get first crack at the job. He rushed for 578 yards on 122 carries in eight games. Jamal Wilson, who was UMass’ No. 1 back before tearing up his knee in September, will certainly be in the mix as well.

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

Previewing UMass’ 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.

UMass returns nine of 11 starters from a unit whose statistics were slightly tainted by the amount of time it spent on the field.

Jovan Santos-Knox, who was second in the MAC with 11.9 tackles per game last year, takes over middle linebacker responsibilities from Stanley Andre, who graduated. The return of Shane Huber, who missed all of 2014 with a knee injury, should help defray the impact of Andre’s departure at inside linebacker.

UMass struggled to get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks last year. It’s hoped that outside linebackers Kassan Messiah and Trey Seals can add to last season’s 5.5 combined sacks.

All-conference cornerback Randall Jette leads a secondary that needs to cut down on big plays allowed. Trey Dudley-Giles, who moved between safety and corner last season, should be at corner full time, while UAB transfer Kelton Brackett will likely get a chance to make an immediate impact.

The Minutemen’s inexperience and smallish stature on the defensive line was exposed at times last year when they played against bigger, more veteran offensive lines. They’ll get bigger with 307-pound Robert Kitching taking over at nose tackle. UMass is counting on junior Peter Angeh and sophomore Sha-Ki Holines to improve with a year of added experience under their belts.

Previewing UMass’ Specialists for 2015

 

UMass tried three placekickers over the course of 2014, and none of them earned any trust. True freshman Michael Caggiano, a high school record-setter in New Jersey, will get every chance to win the job. Logan Laurent takes over at punter hoping to improve on the Minutemen’s struggles there. UMass was 12th in the MAC in punting average (37.1).

Final Analysis

 

UMass won just one game in each of its first two FBS seasons. Last year it jumped up to three wins and nearly had more as a play or two might have changed the results of several games. With most of last year’s team returning, the Minutemen have a chance to take a significant step forward. It’s a critical year for UMass, which is leaving the MAC after the season for an undetermined stretch as an Independent. It’s hoped that a strong year capped by UMass’ first bowl appearance since 1972 might pique the interest of a conference willing to offer permanent membership.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#81 Western Michigan Broncos

NATIONAL FORECAST

#81

MAC West PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: P.J. Fleck, 9-16 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kirk Ciarrocca | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ed Pinkham

P.J. Fleck orchestrated quite the turnaround at Western Michigan last season. The Broncos won eight games in 2014, after picking up just one victory in Fleck's 2013 rookie campaign. Now the next step for this Broncos program is to maintain that success and emerge as a legitimate contender in the MAC West. Fleck appears to have the horses to possibly do that this fall, with 16 starters returning and his staff's efforts on the recruiting trail ready to pay dividends on the field.

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Previewing Western Michigan’s Offense for 2015


Western Michigan’s players were “finally able to touch faith” last season, third-year coach P.J. Fleck says, after living on faith alone during the first year-and-a-half he was at the helm. The Broncos’ seven-game improvement in 2014 took place in large part because their quarterback, Zach Terrell, and offensive line were surprisingly effective, and freshman running back Jarvion Franklin arrived on campus and dazzled. Nine starters return from an offense that ranked second in the MAC in scoring (33.8 ppg). That includes Terrell, Franklin, all three starting wideouts and three offensive linemen.

Terrell took hold of the offense during his sophomore season. He passed for 3,443 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, leading the MAC in passing efficiency. Terrell’s two dynamic targets from a year ago are again at his disposal, juniors Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman. Davis led the MAC in receiving yards (1,408), Braverman in receptions (86).

Franklin is a shifty 6'0", 220-pound back with deceptive speed. He rushed for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns — fourth-most in college football last season. The reigning MAC Offensive Player of the Year should spend his sophomore year running behind a mostly seasoned offensive line, including seniors James Kristof and Willie Beavers at left guard and tackle, respectively. WMU intends to start a true freshman at center, John Keenoy, an early enrollee who surprised coaches with his readiness during the spring. Sophomore right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, entering his first year as a full-time starter, might be the best of the group. 

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

Previewing Western Michigan’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 Broncos’ defense has a few more holes to plug. All-MAC defensive backs Justin Currie and Donald Celiscar and nose tackle Richard Ash (a graduate transfer from Michigan) were staples of a defense that saw its points allowed drop from 35.4 in 2013 to 24.9 in ’14.

Middle linebacker Grant DePalma tallied 102 tackles, benefiting from the work of Ash and his cohorts up front. Two starters return on the line, including tackle Cleveland Smith (5.5 sacks), but “a lot of guys that haven’t seen a lot of playing time need to get in there and go,” Fleck says.

WMU’s secondary is still expected to be the strength of this unit. Two starters return on the back end — all-league corner Ronald Zamort (tied for the MAC lead in pass breakups last season) and safety Rontavious Atkins. The most intriguing piece is sophomore Darius Phillips, the fastest player on the team. Phillips is being groomed to play both corner and wideout. He also led the MAC in kickoff return average last season (26.4 ypr).

Previewing Western Michigan’s Specialists for 2015


Senior kicker Andrew Haldeman has made 30-of-37 field goals the last two years, while classmate J. Schroeder averaged a career-best 42.8 yards per punt last season. The best story among this crew, however, is kickoff specialist Derrick Mitchell, a 28-year-old once-touted minor league baseball prospect who was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2005. Mitchell is only six years younger than Fleck.

Final Analysis


WMU won eight games in 2014, but “we probably won more games on paper than what kind of football team we actually had,” Fleck says. “We kind of got on a roll.” This year’s team might be better and win less. The schedule is unforgiving. In an apparent effort to win the Big Ten’s East Division, the Broncos get Michigan State and Ohio State in September, opening with the Spartans in Kalamazoo. They close with midweek road games at division rivals Northern Illinois and Toledo, both of which Fleck has yet to beat. “We’ve done all the work to earn expectations,” Fleck says. Meeting them will be a bear.




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