SEC

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#4 Auburn Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#4

SEC West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Gus Malzahn, 20-7 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Rhett Lashlee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Will Muschamp

A year after winning the SEC Championship and falling short against Florida State in the national title, Auburn regressed to an 8-5 record in coach Gus Malzahn’s second year. But the Tigers are poised for a rebound in 2015, as Malzahn’s offense will be one of the nation’s best, and the defense should show marked improvement under new coordinator Will Muschamp.

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Previewing Auburn’s Offense for 2015


Few teams feel good about replacing six starters on offense, but Auburn should have little reason to worry. A blend of experienced backups ready to take the next step, incoming talent ready to make an instant impact and the mind of Gus Malzahn leave the Tigers in good position.

Expect Auburn’s offense to change, though. Gone are the days of Nick Marshall’s zone-read attack, replaced by a more balanced offense led by experienced backup Jeremy Johnson, who has been brilliant in brief glimpses over the past two seasons. D’haquille Williams (45 catches, 730 yards, five touchdowns) returns to lead the receiving corps, and reliable contributors Ricardo Louis and Marcus Davis — along with newcomer Jason Smith — look ready to step into the roles left by Sammie Coates and Quan Bray.

At running back, hyper-talented freshman Roc Thomas will compete against Jovon Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 junior college transfer, for the right to take over the lead role in an offense that has produced 11 1,000-yard rushing seasons in Malzahn’s nine years at the collegiate level. Those two will be running behind an offensive line that lost three starters but somehow returns six players who have made a start in the SEC, led by tackles Shon Coleman and Avery Young.

Previewing Auburn’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 big news in Auburn is the arrival of Will Muschamp, who tries to fix a defense that hasn’t been dominant since the last time he roamed Auburn’s sidelines.

Muschamp’s toughest task is fixing a pass rush that produced just 10 sacks in eight SEC games. Getting Carl Lawson back from a torn ACL that cost him last season will help, as Muschamp plans to plug the sophomore into the “Buck,” his hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker spot, and turn him loose. Lawson’s presence should also help free Montravius Adams, a rising star at defensive tackle. Auburn lost four senior contributors at tackle, but redshirt freshman Dontavius Russell could be a star, and five-star defensive end Byron Cowart is on his way.

The top three tacklers from 2014 — safety Johnathan Ford, linebacker Cassanova McKinzy and linebacker Kris Frost — are all back, along with Jonathan Jones, who picked off six passes and earned second-team All-SEC honors. To that mix, Auburn adds the services of Tray Matthews, the former Georgia safety who looked like a star before he was dismissed following off-the-field issues. Now that his transfer year is complete, Matthews will be a physical presence in the back end.

Previewing Auburn’s Specialists for 2015 


Daniel Carlson stepped in as a freshman and instantly extended Auburn’s run of reliable kickers, punching through 75 percent of his field goals in his first season. What he won’t have to do this season is also handle the punting duties; Auburn signed punter Ian Shannon to take the load off of Carlson’s leg. Who will fill big holes in the return game is anybody’s guess; Auburn plans to audition a wide range of players through the spring and summer.

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

Final Analysis 


Some moving parts have to come together for Auburn to once again be a player in the SEC West, but Malzahn’s reputation as an offensive mind and Muschamp’s prowess on defense mean the Tigers are a safe bet to make some noise. With Johnson at the helm, Auburn should be a dangerous passing team, and the combination of talent at both running back and offensive line, plus Malzahn’s history of churning out 1,000-yard rushers, means Johnson should have a solid complement. The pressure, then, falls on Muschamp, who doesn’t have to hold teams to 10 points or less; if he can get the Tigers around 20-24 points against per game, Auburn should be a contender. 

The Debate

Where Does Gus Malzahn Rank Among SEC Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#10 Georgia Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#10

SEC East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Mark Richt, 136-48 (14 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Schottenheimer | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeremy Pruitt

Georgia opens 2015 as the favorite to win the SEC East title. The Bulldogs finished spring without an answer under center, but the offense will revolve around a heavy dose of talented sophomore running back Nick Chubb. And until the passing game is sorted out, Georgia should be able to lean on Chubb and one of the SEC’s top defenses. With games against Auburn and Alabama, the Bulldogs also have one of the SEC’s toughest crossover schedules.

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Previewing Georgia’s Offense for 2015
 

It’s a season of change and uncertainty for Georgia’s offense, which has been among the nation’s most prolific this decade. The only constant is the running game. Nick Chubb rushed for 1,547 yards as a true freshman, and he backed up Todd Gurley for five games. Chubb is back, as is fellow sophomore Sony Michel and junior Keith Marshall, both of whom battled injuries last year. Georgia leaned heavily on its running game last year, and there’s no reason to think it won’t again, so Chubb could make a run at the Heisman.

It also helps that four starters are back from an offensive line that emerged as a strength last season.

Those are the knowns. The unknown is Georgia’s new offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, and how his NFL breeding will translate to the college game. Another unknown is at quarterback, where for the first time in nearly a decade Georgia entered the summer without knowing who the starter would be.

Sophomore Brice Ramsey has the strongest arm, while junior Faton Bauta offers mobility and better accuracy. The competition could carry well into the preseason. The receiver spot is also a concern, with injury-plagued senior Malcolm Mitchell the only proven commodity. So for plenty of reasons, the passing game in general is a concern heading into 2015.

Previewing Georgia’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.

Georgia’s defense saw marked improvement last year under a revamped coaching staff, and coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was rewarded with a raise up to $1.3 million annually. But there’s still plenty of work for Pruitt to do.

The cause was helped when outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins elected to return for one more year. That gives Georgia one of the best pairs of outside rushers in the country. Throw in Lorenzo Carter, the dynamic sophomore, and it’s a fearsome trio.

Trent Thompson, rated the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit by 247Sports, should bolster a defensive line that has been solid but lacked star power. If Thompson lives up to his potential right away, Georgia could have one of the best front sevens in the country.

The questions are at inside linebacker and cornerback, where longtime starters graduated. If playmakers can emerge there, Pruitt will be ecstatic. Otherwise he’s just hoping for dependability.

The past few years, Georgia could have been a national contender with a better defense. The talent on this side of the ball is starting to catch up with Georgia’s offense. It’s not quite enough on paper to make this a preseason top-10 defense, but the potential is there.

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

Previewing Georgia’s Specialists for 2015


Isaiah McKenzie was recruited to give Georgia a home-run threat on special teams, and the 5'8" speedster delivered as a freshman last year. He returned two punts and one kickoff for touchdowns and will be a threat to equal or exceed that this season. Marshall Morgan also gives Georgia one of the better kickers in the country, as he’s converted 84 percent of his field-goal attempts the past two seasons. The question is at punter, where senior Collin Barber (career average of 41.5 yards) has been inconsistent.

Final Analysis


Once again, Georgia has the talent to make a run at the SEC title and the College Football Playoff. The question is whether the offense can be as good despite the changes, and whether the defense continues to improve. If both happen, the Bulldogs will have a special season. If not, the Bulldogs should still have enough to have a solid season. But that will do little to allay a fan base that has tired of being good, but not great. 

The Debate

Is Mark Richt the Best Coach in the SEC East?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#11 Ole Miss Rebels

NATIONAL FORECAST

#11

SEC West PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Hugh Freeze, 24-15 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Luke, Dan Werner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jason Jones, Dave Wommack

Ole Miss has increased its win total in each of coach Hugh Freeze’s three years in Oxford, and the 2015 edition of the Rebels could be even better than the 9-4 squad from last season. The quarterback position has uncertainty, but the receiving corps is among the nation’s best, and the offensive line is improving. Leading the way for Ole Miss should be a strong defense, which is headlined by defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.

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Previewing Ole Miss’ Offense for 2015


Hugh Freeze was hired because of his offense, but Ole Miss was less than dynamic on that side of the ball last year. While the Rebels led the nation in scoring defense, they were just No. 67 in scoring offense. That could change this year if a more experienced offensive line is more productive, and if Chad Kelly, the nation’s No. 1 junior college quarterback, plays with passion and focus and moves away from issues that led to his dismissal at Clemson last spring and an arrest in the winter.

No quarterback starter was named in the spring as Kelly competed with third-year sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade. Kelly’s arm strength, accuracy and mobility make him the favorite. Understanding this is likely his last opportunity to lead a major college football team may make him more focused.

All five starters return on the offensive line. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is a likely top NFL Draft pick, but the Rebels couldn’t gain consistency around him last year. Freshman Javon Patterson, rated the nation’s No. 3 guard by 247Sports, should help on the interior. There is potential among other young players, but a handful of linemen will have to work their way back from offseason injuries, including Tunsil, who sustained a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle in the Rebels’ Peach Bowl loss to TCU.

Also coming back from injury is wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, another potential top-10 NFL Draft pick.

Previewing Ole Miss’ 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 Rebels lost two All-Americans in the secondary, but defensive coordinator Dave Wommack was so impressed with new corners Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard that he moved returning starter Mike Hilton to safety before the start of spring drills. Bridges and Sheperd are both tall, long and physical. 

Veteran Trae Elston moves from strong safety to free where he’ll help tutor a talented sophomore, C.J. Hampton.

Robert Nkemdiche, another All-American, is back at defensive tackle. Like Tunsil and Treadwell, Nkemdiche is expected to exit the draft board quickly next spring. Unlike Tunsil and Treadwell, he heads into August camp injury-free and in great condition.

He’ll get an assist this season from junior college transfer D.J. Jones, an athletic 300-pounder who should provide both mass and quickness to help stiffen a run defense that wasn’t as dominant as the Rebs’ pass defense in 2014. Nkemdiche gets the headlines for this unit, and deservedly so.

The hidden gem is safety Tony Conner, the fifth defensive back in the 4-2-5.  He plays usually near the line of scrimmage and is a sure tackler with good coverage skills.

Middle linebacker is a position to watch. C.J. Johnson will get a lot of work there, but not so much on third downs, and the position will have a committee feel.

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


Previewing Ole Miss’ Specialists for 2015


Will Gleeson at punter and Gary Wunderlich at placekicker are both returning starters. Gleeson often punts on the run to get extended roll. He pinned opponents inside the 20 on 24 of 58 punts last year. The Rebels must replace Will Denny, a four-year long snapper.

Final Analysis 


This may be Freeze’s last chance to do something big with the vaunted 2013 signing class. Barring the unforeseen, Tunsil, Nkemdiche and Treadwell will likely be gone after this season. Conner may join them.

There are questions on offense, but Kelly should make a seamless transition. Freeze helped the lightly recruited Bo Wallace become a three-year starter and tie Eli Manning with 24 career wins.

The defensive line is strong, and if the corners play as well as expected, Ole Miss will again be a factor in the SEC West.

The Debate

Where Does Hugh Freeze Rank Among SEC Coaches for 2015?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#15 LSU Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#15

SEC West PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Les Miles, 103-29 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Cam Cameron | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Steele

LSU owns one of the nation’s most talented rosters, but key question marks remain for Les Miles’ team in 2015. Will the offense take a step forward after ranking 13th in the SEC in scoring last season? Getting better play from its quarterbacks would help, but the Tigers finished spring with uncertainty under center. On defense, LSU has a new coordinator in Kevin Steele and needs to revive a pass rush that registered only 19 sacks in 2014.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

Previewing LSU’s Offense for 2015
 

Another spring in Baton Rouge and another quarterback controversy after 2014 provided little to no clarity in the race between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. Coach Les Miles said the two quarterbacks split the snaps in the spring but indicated that Jennings — who completed only 49 percent of his passes last season — had the upper hand in closed scrimmages. Maturity issues and a failure to learn the playbook plagued Harris last season, and he’s admitted as much. Jennings heads into the fall as the frontrunner, but the position is far from settled.

Miles claims that tailback Leonard Fournette is bigger and stronger after almost a full year in the Tigers’ strength and conditioning program, so expect the Tigers to abandon the committee approach and allow the former five-star recruit to handle the majority of the work. He is poised for a huge season.

Poor quarterback play limited the production of a young but talented group of wide receivers. Travin Dural, who led the team with 37 receptions for 758 yards, was the only Tiger to catch more than 17 passes in 2014. Malachi Dupre, a top recruit in 2014, is poised for a breakout season if he can stay healthy.

The Tigers lose two valuable members of their offensive line but are well-equipped to move forward without taking a step back. Jerald Hawkins has the unenviable task of replacing three-year starter La’el Collins at left tackle. Hawkins has started every game he’s played at LSU but now must shift from right to left tackle. 

Previewing LSU’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 moniker “DB U.” is tossed around Baton Rouge as each new crop of defensive backs expects to be as good as their past teammates now in the NFL. Cornerback Tre’Davious White, the leader of not only the secondary but also the entire defense, is bringing along Ed Paris and early enrollee Kevin Toliver II to carry on the tradition. “We’re still DB U. It’s just different cats,” Paris said during the spring. Jalen Mills, a former Freshman All-American as a cornerback, and Jamal Adams will form a dynamic safety duo in what figures to be one of the most talented secondaries in the SEC.

Issues surrounded the inexperienced LSU defensive line from the start in 2014 as an endless rotation of players made it difficult for the unit to have any continuity. Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux have settled in nicely at defensive tackle, but there is concern at defensive end. With new coordinator Kevin Steele’s experience in a 3-4 base defense, the Tigers may play more three-man fronts as they continue to search for playmaking ends.

The insertion of true freshman Kendell Beckwith into the lineup at Florida ignited the LSU linebacker corps, a unit maligned during much of 2014 for its inability to play sideline to sideline. Beckwith, the team’s second-leading tackler in 2014, brings a youthful energy and a ton of athleticism to the middle linebacker spot.

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

 

Previewing LSU’s Specialists for 2015 
 

The once-automatic Colby Delahoussaye struggled late in his sophomore season, missing three of his final four attempts. He will battle classmate Trent Domingue for the placekicking duties in preseason camp. Jamie Keehn returns as the Tigers’ punter.

Final Analysis 
 

It’s pretty simple: LSU needs much better play from the quarterback position in 2015. Whoever gets the starting nod must improve on an anemic passing attack that failed to throw for more than 150 yards in seven of eight SEC games. Fournette is a star, but he can’t carry an entire offense on those broad shoulders. The defense, led by a top-flight secondary, will be strong — if not elite like LSU defenses of the recent past. The Tigers are talented enough to be a factor in the rugged SEC West — only if the passing offense improves.

The Debate

Is LSU's Leonard Fournette the Best Running Back in the SEC?

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