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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#16 Arkansas Razorbacks

NATIONAL FORECAST

#16

SEC West PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Bret Bielema, 10-15 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dan Enos | DEF. COORDINATOR: Robb Smith

Arkansas showed significant improvement in Bret Bielema’s second year and finished the 2014 season by winning four out of its last six games. The Razorbacks should be even better in 2015 with the return of quarterback Brandon Allen, one of the nation’s top backfields and offensive lines. The front seven on defense must be retooled, but there’s enough talent to keep this unit near the top of the SEC.

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Previewing Arkansas’ Offense for 2015
 

Brandon Allen is in line to become Arkansas’ first three-year starting quarterback since Matt Jones (2002-04), but he’s working on his fourth offensive coordinator in five years with the arrival of Dan Enos. If Allen marginally improves on his 2014 passing numbers — 2,285 yards, 20 touchdowns, five interceptions — the Razorbacks could make a huge leap.

Arkansas sports the FBS’ only tandem 1,000-yard rushers from last season in Jonathan Williams (1,190 yards) and Alex Collins (1,100), who each rushed for 12 touchdowns. The duo should be just as dynamic this fall running behind a line that returns four starters. The front wall has undergone a shake-up, with former guard Denver Kirkland now at left tackle and Dan Skipper swapping sides to right tackle. Left guard Sebastian Tretola, who gained national publicity for his touchdown pass on a fake field goal last year, returns in better physical condition next to center Mitch Smothers. Frank Ragnow is the top candidate to take over at right guard, and the Razorbacks should have quality depth.

Keon Hatcher returned to lead the receiving corps, which is in need of game-breaking talent. Signee Dominique Reed and redshirt freshman Jojo Robinson should provide a spark to a unit that also brings back Jared Cornelius, Cody Hollister, Drew Morgan and converted quarterback Damon Mitchell.

Hunter Henry again leads the tight end corps, which also features Jeremy Sprinkle and signee Will Gragg, the brother of ex-Hog Chris Gragg of the Buffalo Bills.

Previewing Arkansas’ Defense for 2015

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

Arkansas shook off about a decade of sluggish play from its defense to rank 10th nationally in yards allowed per game, an improvement of 66 spots. Second-year coordinator Robb Smith re-upped with a handsome raise and is confident the Razorbacks can plug rising stars into the system and remain productive despite the loss of key players such as Trey Flowers, Darius Philon, Martrell Spaight and Alan Turner.

Up front, breakout star Taiwan Johnson has moved from nose guard to defensive tackle to create room for Bijhon Jackson and DeMarcus Hodge. Ends Deatrich Wise Jr. and JaMichael Winston are prepared for larger roles and the leadership mantle. Junior college transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter should have an impact.

Brooks Ellis slides from middle linebacker to the weak-side spot from which Spaight racked up an SEC-best 128 tackles. Junior Josh Williams and sophomores Khalia Hackett and Randy Ramsey (if he returns from suspension) should have increased playing time at linebacker.

Corners Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre’ Toliver have proven to be solid SEC cover men. Rohan Gaines brings veteran experience at strong safety, and sophomore Josh Liddell could be the kind of heavy-hitting free safety the Razorbacks have lacked for years.

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

 

Previewing Arkansas’ Specialists for 2015
 

Toby Baker and signee Blake Johnson are vying to replace punter Sam Irwin-Hill. Adam McFain has the experience edge over Lane Saling and Cole Hedlund for placekicking duties. Cornelius is the punt returner after showing promise as a freshman, and Hatcher has experience on kickoff returns.

Final Analysis
 

Arkansas should be more dynamic and more efficient with Allen back for his third season as the starter operating in front of a top-flight offensive line. The defense, despite some key losses in the front seven, should once again be strong. To emerge as a legitimate contender in the rough-and-tumble SEC West, the Hogs must find a way to win on the road in league play (something they haven’t done since October 2012) and learn how to win close games (they haven’t won an SEC game decided by a touchdown or less since October 2011).

The Debate

Are Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams the Nation's Top Running Back Duo?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#21 Miss. St. Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#21

SEC West PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Dan Mullen , 46-31 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Billy Gonzales, John Hevesy | DEF. COORDINATOR: Manny Diaz

Mississippi State is coming off one of the best seasons in school history. But with only seven returning starters, can the Bulldogs contend for 10 wins and the SEC West title once again? Don’t count out coach Dan Mullen’s team in 2015, especially with a Heisman contender in quarterback Dak Prescott.

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Previewing Mississippi State’s Offense for 2015 
 

The biggest reason Mississippi State and its fans believe 2014 wasn’t a one-hit wonder is Dak Prescott, who set 12 single-season records during his breakout junior campaign. He became the first Bulldog ever to finish a season with more than 3,000 total yards, piling up 4,470. This year he’ll be asked to do even more, but with less around him. Three quarterbacks wait in the wings for their opportunity next season — junior Damian Williams and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley.

The Bulldogs must replace running back Josh Robinson and his 1,203 rushing yards. Ashton Shumpert ended last year with some momentum, gaining 207 yards in the final four games of the regular season. The job won’t be handed to him, however. Redshirt freshmen Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams are fighting for time, and true freshman and early enrollee Malik Dear also got some reps in the spring.

De’Runnya Wilson returns as one of the top receivers in the SEC. He caught 47 passes for 680 yards and nine scores last season. Slot receiver Jameon Lewis must be replaced. Top candidates are Gabe Myles and junior college transfer Donald Gray.

There’s no bigger question for Mississippi State heading into 2015 than the offensive line. The Bulldogs must identify new starters at tackle, guard and center. They have replacements at guard and tackle but lost all three of their centers to graduation.

Previewing Mississippi State’s Defense for 2015 

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

The Bulldogs are without three starters on the defensive front heading into 2015, but the losses look worse on paper than in reality. Chris Jones, arguably the team’s most talented defensive player, technically did not start last year and will slide into one of the open spots at tackle. The losses at end, however, could be a bit of an issue. Preston Smith takes his team-high nine sacks and 15 tackles for a loss to the NFL. Senior Ryan Brown will be asked to replace Smith’s production.

Gerri Green, a talented redshirt freshman, is in position to take over for Benardrick McKinney at middle linebacker. The coaches love his potential, but replacing the best player on the defense is a lot to ask. Outside backer Beniquez Brown, who finished second on the team in tackles last season, will be asked to replace McKinney’s production and leadership. MSU’s coaches and players rave about his football IQ.

Mississippi State’s defense allowed the most passing yards in the SEC last year. The Bulldogs lose three starters from the secondary, including both safeties. Kivon Coman and Deontay Evans worked at safety with the first-team defense during spring practice. Freshman Jamal Peters will be tough to keep off the field when he arrives in the fall. Taveze Calhoun, who started all 13 games at corner last season, did not participate in the spring due to injury but will be good to go in the fall.

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

 

Specialists 
 

Mississippi State found a reliable option at kicker in 2014 after a disastrous 2013. Unfortunately, that option is not available in 2015. Evan Sobiesk, who made 12-of-14 attempts last year, left the team to pursue a career in dentistry. Devon Bell, the punter, is the only player on the roster with a made field goal in his career, but he has converted only 6-of-14 attempts. Bell returned to field-goal kicking in the spring.

Final Analysis 
 

Mississippi State loses seven starters on offense and eight on defense. That much turnover won’t be easy to overcome. The expectations with the fans won’t change, though, after they tasted the promised land last year with a No. 1 ranking. Prescott, one of the best players in the SEC, will be able to mask a lot of the holes. How many and how well could decide the Bulldogs’ season. 

The Debate

Where Does Dan Mullen Rank Among SEC Coaches for 2015?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#20 Texas A&M Aggies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#20

SEC West PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Kevin Sumlin, 28-11 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jake Spavital | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Chavis

It was a busy offseason in College Station, as Texas A&M and coach Kevin Sumlin made the defense a top priority after this unit has struggled mightily through three years in the SEC. John Chavis was hired away from LSU, and the veteran coordinator is tasked with fixing a defense that allowed 36.6 points per game in SEC contests last season. Scoring points won’t be a problem for the Aggies. However, improving in the win column means Texas A&M has to take a step forward on defense. 

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

Previewing Texas A&M’s Offense for 2015
 

If his freshman season is any indication, quarterback Kyle Allen will develop into one of the top passers in the SEC. Thrust into the starting lineup in November, Allen threw three touchdown passes against Missouri and four against Auburn and West Virginia. Allen, an Arizona native, aims to pick up where he left off in the season opener against Arizona State.

Still, Allen must stave off a challenge from highly touted freshman Kyler Murray — assuming Murray doesn’t sign a professional baseball contract. Whoever emerges has an array of talented receivers to target. Sophomore Speedy Noil is the deep threat his name would suggest, while junior Josh Reynolds set a school record with 13 touchdown catches.

The Aggies must run more effectively, though. More production is desperately needed from running backs Tra Carson and Brandon Williams (who might also play some cornerback), who are running behind an offensive line that didn’t meet A&M’s typical standards in 2014. The Aggies allowed 27 sacks and failed too often to convert short-yardage situations. Enter former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen, who will coordinate the running game and coach the offensive line. He’s stressed better technique and a more aggressive mentality.

Previewing Texas A&M’s Defense for 2015 

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

Frustrated from two years of inept defensive play, coach Kevin Sumlin convinced John Chavis, one of the nation’s most respected defensive coordinators, to leave LSU and come to College Station. The move cost A&M $1.7 million per season, but if Chavis can rejuvenate the once-proud “Wrecking Crew,” that price tag will look like a bargain.

Athletic pass-rushing ends are of utmost importance in Chavis’ scheme, and he has them. Myles Garrett set an SEC freshman record with 11.5 sacks and projects to be even better in 2015. The Aggies believe they will be able to apply pressure from the other end, too. Junior Daeshon Hall has bulked up to 260 pounds and seems primed for a breakout year. Senior tackle Alonzo Williams is effective against the run but desperately needs help inside.

The linebacker position has been especially moribund the past two seasons, but there are some signs of improvement. Sophomore Otaro Alaka showed steady improvement and was named Defensive MVP of the Liberty Bowl. However, injuries have been a recurring problem.  Junior college transfer Claude George had a strong showing in the spring at middle linebacker and figures to upgrade A&M’s run defense immediately.

The Aggies also need to improve their pass defense. Senior cornerback De’Vante Harris has started since his freshman season, but he’s also been inconsistent. He may flourish in Chavis’ aggressive press coverage scheme. A&M is in better shape at safety. Armani Watts aims to build on a solid true freshman season in which he grabbed three picks. Junior college transfer Justin Evans drew raves in the spring.

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

Previewing Texas A&M’s Specialists for 2015 
 

Punter is an area of strength. Drew Kaser, a Ray Guy Award finalist, is among the best in the country. Placekicking is another matter. Taylor Bertolet has great range but questionable accuracy. He’s converted just 4-of-12 field goal attempts between 30 and 49 yards and has missed 10 extra points.

Final Analysis 
 

The Aggies have learned they can go only so far in the SEC without a strong defense. Therefore, they’re counting on Chavis to rebuild a unit that ranked 102nd in the nation and last in the SEC in total defense in 2014. Chavis has young talent with which to work but obviously faces a tall task. The Aggies have a high-scoring offense loaded with big-play threats, so they can be a serious contender in the SEC with a respectable defense. How quickly can Chavis deliver?

The Debate

Is Kyle Allen One of the SEC's Top Quarterbacks for 2015?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#22 Tennessee Volunteers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#22

SEC East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Butch Jones, 12-13 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike DeBord | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Jancek

Tennessee is a program on the rise entering its third year under coach Butch Jones. The Volunteers improved from 5-7 in 2013 to 7-6 in 2014 and finished last season with a dominant win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. With 17 returning starters, Tennessee is poised for another jump in its win total and final ranking in 2015.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

Previewing Tennessee’s Offense for 2015
 

Joshua Dobbs’ rise from third on the depth chart to being the impetus of Tennessee’s 2014 bowl push and the projected star of the 2015 Vols has been, in a word, meteoric. The aerospace engineering major from suburban Atlanta has even been mentioned as having an outside shot at this season’s Heisman Trophy. Keeping Dobbs healthy will be of utmost importance; no other quarterback on the roster has taken a collegiate snap.

There are only three scholarship running backs on the roster, but Tennessee’s backfield duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara should be as exciting to watch as any. Hurd finished with a team-high 899 yards in 2014 but seems eager to share carries with Kamara, who began his career at Alabama. Kamara will complement the punishing style of Hurd with his maneuverability and speed.

The receiving corps should be a talented group of playmakers that is a coverage nightmare. The return of Marquez North from a shoulder injury that ended his 2014 season will be a huge boost, and anything less than North’s best season yet will be a disappointment. The Vols also bring back Pig Howard, who led the team with 618 yards last year.

A year of experience will help alleviate serious concerns about the offensive line, which last season gave up more yards due to sacks (305) than all but two FBS teams. One of the only positives about this group in 2014 was Jashon Robertson, who started all 13 games and was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman team.

Previewing Tennessee’s Defense for 2015
 

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

As hard as it is to believe, the defensive line that dominated Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl somehow got even better this offseason. Back are Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, who combined for 21 sacks last season. No position group enters this season with more potential.

Gone is A.J. Johnson, Tennessee’s middle linebacker and team leader. Finding a suitable replacement up the middle will be paramount to the Vols’ ability to stop the run this season. On the outside, there are far fewer question marks. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is coming off a breakout season as a sophomore and will likely lead the team in tackles once again.

The Vols’ defensive backfield, led by cornerback Cameron Sutton, should be one of the conference’s best. The reports on junior college transfer Justin Martin, an athletic corner, sound as if he’ll transition nicely into Division I football. Replacing nickel corner Justin Coleman with sophomore Rashaan Gaulden seems like a logical fit. At safety, Brian Randolph packs a punch and was an integral part of the defense last season. Opposite him, LaDarrell McNeil looked rejuvenated in 2014.

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

Previewing Tennessee’s Specialists for 2015
 

Aaron Medley was automatic on field goals from within 40 yards last season. He has spent the offseason trying to develop long-kick accuracy, which will also help him on kickoff duty. Replacing punter Matt Darr and his penchant for pinning teams deep won’t be easy, but the incoming transfer of three-year Maryland starter Nathan Renfro, a Nashville-area native, will help. So will the addition of Tommy Townsend, a high school All-American. Sutton will likely handle punts with Evan Berry returning kicks for the second straight year.

Final Analysis 
 

Tennessee’s dismantling of Iowa in last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl guaranteed that excitement in Knoxville would reach a fever pitch by this season’s opener. With the suddenly high expectations for the Vols comes pressure for Butch Jones for the first time in his Tennessee career. There’s talent at the skill positions, but enough to win the SEC East? Jones probably has another year before fans grow restless, but if the Vols don’t win the division, they’ll need to at least come very close.

The Debate

Where Does Butch Jones Rank Among the SEC's Coaches in 2015?

Click here to join the debate.




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