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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#3 Baylor Bears

NATIONAL FORECAST

#3

Big 12 PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Art Briles, 55-34 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kendal Briles | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Bennett

Art Briles has transformed Baylor into an annual Big 12 title contender, and the Bears are Athlon Sports’ pick to win the conference title and play in college football’s four-team playoff. Seth Russell is the next in line at quarterback in Waco, and the supporting cast is among the best in the nation with a deep receiving corps and solid offensive line. The defense should improve with the return of nine starters, including All-America end Shawn Oakman.

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Previewing Baylor’s Offense for 2015


Spencer Drango hasn’t scored one touchdown, taken a snap at quarterback, caught a pass or even gained a yard rushing. But when you’re talking about a Baylor offense that’s led the nation in each of the last two seasons, there’s not a more important piece to the puzzle than the All-America left tackle.

“It certainly gives us a better opportunity (to compete for a national championship) when you come out of the gates with guys that have been there,” eighth-year Baylor coach Art Briles says.

With Drango and the entire starting line returning intact, along with a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers, it certainly eases the transition to a new quarterback.

Fourth-year junior Seth Russell takes the reins from Bryce Petty, who threw for 8,055 yards and 61 touchdowns while leading the Bears to back-to-back Big 12 championships and a two-year record of 22–4. “He’s shown the ability to help our football team win with his feet and with his arm and with his intelligence,” Briles says of Russell, who’s much more of a running threat than Petty.

Joining Drango up front are Pat Colbert at the other tackle, Blake Muir and Jarell Broxton at guard and sophomore Kyle Fuller at center.

That’s music to the ears of junior running back Shock Linwood, a returning All-Big 12 pick who rushed for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. The Bears are also loaded at receiver with junior Corey Coleman and sophomore KD Cannon, a lethal duo that combined for 122 catches for 2,149 yards and 19 TDs.

Previewing Baylor’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big 12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Another pre-Signing Day recruiting coup was keeping defensive end Shawn Oakman in the fold for another year. A third-team All-America and first-team All-Big 12 selection, Oakman set the single-season school record for sacks (11.0) and was just shy of another mark with 19.5 tackles for a loss.

“I just think you can look at it a year from now, and you’re talking about a (Jadeveon) Clowney, one of those Ndamukong Suh’s, one of those J.J. Watt’s, where he will test well, he’ll play well,” defensive coordinator Phil Bennett says. 

Oakman anchors a front that includes All-Big 12 pick Andrew Billings at nose tackle, fifth-year senior Beau Blackshear at tackle and either Jamal Palmer or returning Freshman All-American K.J. Smith at the other end.

The linebacking crew went through a makeover with former junior college transfer Grant Campbell in the middle, another Freshman All-American in Taylor Young on the weak side and sophomore Travon Blanchard at the “Bear” position.

Easily the most scrutinized area is the secondary, where all four starters return intact. Juniors Xavien Howard and Ryan Reid are the corners, with Terrell Burt and Orion Stewart at safety, but the depth is better than it’s ever been.

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

Previewing Baylor’s Specialists for 2015 


There will be a lot of pressure on incoming freshman Drew Galitz, who was recruited to replace four-year starting punter Spencer Roth (43.7-yard career average). Kicker Chris Callahan had an up-and-down freshman season, missing five of his first six field goals, but he booted the game-winner to beat TCU and finished the season by making 17 of his last 20 attempts.

Final Analysis 


While the offense has led the charge in Baylor’s meteoric rise and back-to-back league championships, this year’s team will have to count on an experienced defense being dominant out of the gates, “because you’re starting a new QB,” Briles says. The much-maligned secondary will have to be vastly improved for the Bears to three-peat in a league race that might come down to a Nov. 27 showdown at TCU.

The Debate

Is Art Briles the Big 12's No. 1 Coach?

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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.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

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

#6 USC Trojans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#6

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Steve Sarkisian, 9-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Clay Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Justin Wilcox

High expectations are back at USC, as the Trojans return 14 starters from last year’s 9-4 team. Quarterback Cody Kessler headlines an offense that averaged 35.8 points per game in 2014. Kessler is surrounded by one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines and receiving corps. Scoring points won’t be an issue for second-year coach Steve Sarkisian, but the defense must replace standout end Leonard Williams and needs to show improvement after giving up over 400 yards per game in 2014.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing USC’s Offense for 2015 


This could be one of the more explosive offenses in the country. Quarterback Cody Kessler returns from one of the better under-the-radar seasons in recent memory. All he did as a junior was complete 69.7 percent of his passes while throwing for 39 touchdowns and only five interceptions. With the gifted Nelson Agholor gone, Kessler’s new go-to receiver will be JuJu Smith, who was a Freshman All-American a year ago. Then there is Steven Mitchell, the shifty new slot receiver who might have been the MVP of spring practice, as well as Adoree’ Jackson, another Freshman All-American who might be the most exciting two-way player in America. A full-time starter at cornerback, Jackson also will be utilized more as a pass catcher, especially after his breakout game against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

The Trojans will miss Javorius “Buck” Allen and his 1,489 yards rushing at tailback, but they hope to feature Justin Davis, a slashing, breakaway type, and Tre Madden, who likes to rumble between the tackles, as a new complementary pair. Highly regarded freshman Ronald Jones should also work into the mix, along with Soma Vainuku, an intimidating 270-pound fullback who could be the short yardage answer.

The offensive line might be the deepest and strongest unit on the team. Max Tuerk is an All-Pac-12 center. He will be flanked by a pair of Freshman All-Americans in Viane Talamaivao at guard and Toa Lobendahn at tackle. Guard Damien Mama and tackle Zach Banner, a couple of beefy, 350-plus pounders, round out a group that is as active as it is physical.

Previewing USC’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

You can’t lose the best defensive end in the country and a captain and spiritual leader at linebacker and not feel it. All-American Leonard Williams and leading tackler Hayes Pullard will be difficult to replace, especially for a team that often struggled late in games. But the Trojans are not without their share of talent on defense. The new all-star candidate is Su’a Cravens, who led the team in interceptions (three) and tackles for a loss (17.0) last year as an All-Pac-12 hybrid outside linebacker/safety.

Up front, senior Antwaun Woods will try to set the tone at nose tackle. Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon and Scott Felix, more of an OLB/end hybrid, round out a solid, if unspectacular, group.

The linebackers joining Cravens will be Lamar Dawson, probably USC’s most improved player this spring, and the always aggressive Anthony Sarao.

The secondary is led by the aforementioned Jackson, who is among the country’s finest cover cornerbacks. Kevon Seymour, coming off a fine spring, will start at the other corner. The starting safeties are likely to be the improving John Plattenburg and Leon McQuay III, although true freshman Iman Marshall should quickly work his way into the rotation.

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

Previewing USC’s Specialists for 2015


Solid senior Kris Albarado is in his third year as USC’s punter. But there is a vacancy at placekicker, where newcomers Matt Boermeester and Alex Wood will battle for the job in fall practice. Boermeester will enter with a small advantage.

Final Analysis 


Coming off a 9–4 season that left most Trojans boosters feeling mildly disappointed, coach Steve Sarkisian will face the pressure of huge expectations this fall. The offense should score plenty of points. But it is the defense — which was mauled by the likes of Boston College, Arizona State and UCLA a year ago — that must show significant improvement, and that won’t be easy without the departed Williams and Pullard. With Kessler, Smith, Jackson and Co., spectacular plays should be plentiful. But in the end, this team will go only as far as the defense takes it.

The Debate

Is Cody Kessler the Best Quarterback in the Pac-12?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#5 TCU Horned Frogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#5

Big 12 PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Gary Patterson, 132-45 (14 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Sonny Cumbie, Doug Meacham | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dick Bumpas

TCU just missed out on the college football playoff last season, and the Horned Frogs are poised for another run at the national championship in 2015. Quarterback Trevone Boykin was one of the nation’s most improved players in the nation last year, and there’s no shortage of skill talent in Fort Worth. Defense is coach Gary Patterson’s strong point, but the secondary and linebacking corps are concerns after a few key personnel departures.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing TCU’s Offense for 2015


Trevone Boykin set eight school records last year in his first full season as a quarterback, throwing for 3,901 yards and 33 touchdowns and ranking fourth in the nation in total offense. Imagine him with a year of experience in the “Air Raid” offense installed last season.

He won’t be the only one who can gain from a year of experience. His top receiver, Josh Doctson, set his own single-season school records for yards and touchdown catches. Kolby Listenbee emerged as a stretch-the-field vertical receiver. Deante’ Gray showcased home-run speed out of the slot.

Running back Aaron Green ran for almost 1,000 yards despite not starting until November. Kyle Hicks, a sophomore the Horned Frogs flipped from Texas two years ago, could be primed for heavier action, and former Nebraska four-star running back Shaun Nixon is back from an ACL injury.

Everyone will operate behind an offensive line that returns four starters with 74 starts among them, including third-year starting center Joey Hunt. Right tackle Hala Vaitai will move to the left side, so not all four returners are in the same spots. But the staff believes another offseason of work in the system will yield benefits for everyone.

Previewing TCU’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big 12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

TCU coach Gary Patterson has a reputation for enjoying defensive rebuilds. Well, he has one on his hands this time with the loss of both his linebackers, including leading tackler and All-America senior Paul Dawson, and the team leader in interceptions, safety Chris Hackett, who surprised him with an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Linebackers get a lot of responsibility in the 4-2-5, so Patterson emphasized athleticism and awareness with early enrollees Mike Freeze and Alec Dunham.

For the secondary, the Horned Frogs are looking for speed and height at Hackett’s spot, and 6'2" senior Kenny Iloka got the first shot. At cornerback, the Frogs will be young with another early enrollee, four-star Louisiana freshman DeShawn Raymond, but incumbent Ranthony Texada started all 13 games as a freshman a year ago. Patterson may hedge his bet at corner with a look at receivers Gray and Cameron Echols-Luper.

Defensive tackle Davion Pierson, whose 31 starts are the most on the team, leads the unit least affected by graduation. Nebraska transfer Aaron Curry has big-game experience but hasn’t played in a year.

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

Previewing TCU’s Specialists for 2015


Placekicker Jaden Oberkrom and punter Ethan Perry both enter their fourth seasons. Oberkrom, who won the pressure-packed West Virginia road game on a last-second kick, is the nation’s active leader with 58 field goals and third in Big 12 history in percentage made over 40 yards. Perry ranked eighth in the nation with 45.3 percent of his punts downed inside the 20. TCU allowed minus-9 yards in punt returns all year. Echols-Luper returned a punt for a TD at Kansas.

Final Analysis


This is a very good team, with experience and playmaking at the offensive skill positions, and a reliable history of defense under Patterson. But the Horned Frogs have their sights set on being more than very good. Last season convinced them they could go undefeated even in the Big 12 and be a CFB Playoff team. But first, the Horned Frogs will have to win on the road. They left Texas only twice last season before the bowl game. This year, it will be five times, including a late-season trip to Norman before the final showdown against Baylor. Performing in hostile environments and managing expectations may be the toughest challenges of all. 

The Debate

Is Gary Patterson the Best Coach in the Big 12?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#7 Michigan State Spartans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#7

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Mark Dantonio, 75-31 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Bollman, Dave Warner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Harlon Barnett, Mike Tressel

Mark Dantonio has transformed Michigan State into one of the nation’s top programs in recent years. The Spartans have claimed at least 11 wins in four out of the last five years and finished No. 3 nationally in 2013. Dantonio’s team is poised for another run at the Big Ten title, especially with senior quarterback Connor Cook back under center. But the big question for Michigan State is on defense with a secondary that loses its top two players from last year and lost coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Michigan State’s Offense for 2015


Michigan State has a third-year starter in Connor Cook who’s poised to become the winningest quarterback in school history and set several all-time passing marks this season.  Cook has the advantage of being protected by what’s expected to be the best offensive line of the Mark Dantonio era. Senior All-American Jack Allen brings an ornery presence to center, while left tackle Jack Conklin is a celebrated talent some project to be a future first-round NFL Draft pick.

The extent of the Spartans’ offensive success is a matter of who steps up to replace Big Ten Receiver of the Year Tony Lippett and 1,500-yard rusher Jeremy Langford. The Spartans have plenty of talent at the receiver and running back positions, but it is unproven. Players will need to grow up quickly with a Sept. 12 home game against 2014 national runner-up Oregon looming.

Cook has great accuracy and a strong arm, leading the Big Ten in passing yardage last season, but receivers such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton need to be more consistent, and the Spartans have plenty of room for improvement in gaining yards after the catch. Tight end Josiah Price likely will remain one of Cook’s favorite third-down and red-zone targets.

Tailback is less settled, with the status of Delton Williams up in the air after his indefinite suspension in the spring, and slashers Madre London and Gerald Holmes jockeying for pole position heading into fall camp. Incoming freshman LJ Scott will compete immediately for the starting tailback job regardless of how the depth chart reads entering August.

Previewing Michigan State’s Defense for 2015

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


The Spartans have finished in the nation’s top 10 in total defense the past four years, and a dominant front four could keep that streak alive. It starts with former Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun at one end, and the quick and powerful Lawrence Thomas shifting from tackle to the other end. Seniors Damon Knox and Joel Heath are at tackle alongside towering Freshman All-American Malik McDowell.

The Spartans return better-than-adequate outside linebackers Ed Davis and Darien Harris, with junior Riley Bullough fast becoming a rising star in the middle.

The question mark on the team is in the secondary, where Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Kurtis Drummond and first-round talent Trae Waynes must be replaced. Athletic sophomore Montae Nicholson seems up to the task of playing alongside veteran RJ Williamson at safety, but the corners are much less certain. Junior Darian Hicks started 10 games last season but must win back his starting job, and redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland and senior Arjen Colquhoun are in close competition. Junior Demetrious Cox has been a safety but is talented enough to play cornerback if needed. The position is shaky enough that true freshmen will be thrown into the mix in fall camp.

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

Previewing Michigan State’s Specialists for 2015


Kicker Michael Geiger is coming off an offseason procedure for a hip pointer. Redshirt freshman Jake Hartbarger has a big leg but is unproven at punter. Macgarrett Kings Jr. is expected to handle punt return duties, while Shelton is a good bet to continue to return kicks after running one back 90 yards for a score against Penn State last season.

Final Analysis


Michigan State has an accomplished quarterback, strong-to-dominant play on both the offensive and defensive lines, and 24 seniors. The Spartans must prove they have elite talent at the other skill positions to attain their goals of winning the Big Ten and making the College Football Playoff. There is great potential but still much to be determined in fall camp.

The Debate

Where Does Mark Dantonio Rank Among Big Ten 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.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

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

#8 Oregon Ducks

NATIONAL FORECAST

#8

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Mark Helfrich, 24-4 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Scott Frost | DEF. COORDINATOR: Don Pellum

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has guided the Ducks to 24 wins over the last two seasons and a No. 2 finish after last year’s defeat to Ohio State in the national championship game. Helfrich has Oregon poised to win the Pac-12 North once again, but it won’t be easy replacing standout quarterback Marcus Mariota. Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams is expected to win the job, and the senior will be surrounded by a deep group of skill players.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Oregon’s Offense for 2015 


Oregon enters a new era after the loss of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, who led the FBS with a passer rating of 181.75 and averaged 9.01 yards per play of total offense. To replace him, the Ducks signed fifth-year transfer Vernon Adams — who led the FCS with a passing rating of 183.13 and averaged 9.0 yards per play of total offense. Adams wasn’t on hand for spring drills, however, giving a big head start to his primary challenger, returning junior Jeff Lockie. The bulk of Lockie’s experience came in mop-up duty the last two years. Coaches have expressed confidence in Lockie’s experience and decision-making, but Adams is far more proven as a playmaker.

As usual, there’s an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions. Running back Royce Freeman is drawing Heisman buzz, after teaming with junior Thomas Tyner to rush for nearly 2,000 yards last season. The receiving corps, led by Byron Marshall and Dwayne Stanford, welcomes Bralon Addison back into the fold after a knee injury. But sophomores Devon Allen (ACL surgery) and Darren Carrington (suspension) are question marks entering the fall, as is tight end Pharaoh Brown due to a knee injury.

The offensive line needs to replace four-year starting center Hroniss Grasu; one candidate is former walk-on Matt Pierson, pressed into action last season and now considered a dependable veteran.

Previewing Oregon’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The Ducks got a big boost when defensive end DeForest Buckner opted to return for his senior season. He was easily the most disruptive player in the front seven last season, even more so than Arik Armstead, who left early for the NFL.

The linebackers hope to make this year’s defense more well- rounded up front. Senior inside backer Rodney Hardrick and Joe Walker need to find their way into the backfield more often, and outside backers Tyson Coleman and Christian French want to boost their sack totals. Defensive coordinator Don Pellum was criticized at times in 2014 for rushing as few as three players, and the Ducks intend to be more aggressive in 2015.

That said, they may have to protect a secondary that’s young at the cornerback spots. Sophomore Chris Seisay replaced the injured Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in the postseason last year and held up well, but he’s far from a proven commodity. Sophomore Arrion Springs, true freshman Ugo Amadi and converted receiver Charles Nelson also will compete for time at corner, supported by two solid safeties in Reggie Daniels and Tyree Robinson.

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

Previewing Oregon’s Specialists for 2015 


The good news: Oregon returns both specialists, kicker Aidan Schneider and punter Ian Wheeler. The bad news: Both joined the Ducks as walk-ons and beat out scholarship players for reps. Schneider was a pleasant surprise as a true freshman, making 11-of-12 attempts, but Wheeler battled inconsistency. The return game will be bolstered by the return of Addison, who averaged 14.1 yards per punt return in 2013. All of last season’s top kick returners are back.

Final Analysis 


“It’s a new day in Oregon football,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost acknowledged during the first week of spring practice. The upcoming season will be one of major transition after the graduation of a group of seniors who led the program to four postseason victories, two in the Rose Bowl. In 2014, the Ducks debuted a number of future stars in the freshman class: Freeman, Allen, Carrington, offensive lineman Tyrell Crosby and defensive backs Seisay, Nelson and Robinson. How quickly they can reach their potential — and what kind of quarterback play the Ducks get from a couple of intriguing candidates — could determine whether Oregon’s run of success continues to 2015, or if this fall merely serves as a bridge to 2016. 

The Debate

Is Royce Freeman the Best Running Back in the Pac-12?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#9 Florida State Seminoles

NATIONAL FORECAST

#9

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Jimbo Fisher, 58-11 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jimbo Fisher | DEF. COORDINATOR: Charles Kelly

Florida State has a few holes to fill in 2015, but the Seminoles are loaded for another run at the ACC title. Replacing quarterback Jameis Winston is coach Jimbo Fisher’s biggest task, while the defense has to improve after giving up 5.5 yards per play in 2014. Running back Dalvin Cook headlines a deep group of young talent that’s ready to keep Florida State among the nation’s best.

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Previewing Florida State’s Offense for 2015 


When he met with reporters in February at the NFL Scouting Combine, quarterback Jameis Winston was asked how difficult it was to leave Florida State and declare for the draft. Winston responded by pointing out that his top receiver, top tight end, four offensive linemen and a senior running back were invited to the Combine as well. “If you were playing quarterback at Florida State, what would you do?” Winston asked with a smile.

That sums up the challenge for the Seminoles. Not only did they lose Winston but also record-setting receiver Rashad Greene, record-setting tight end Nick O’Leary (the 2014 Mackey Award winner) and four seniors on the line. What’s left is a group that is talented but unproven.

Tailback Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 1,008 yards as a freshman, likely will be the workhorse. But who will he take handoffs from? Sean Maguire distanced himself from the competition in the spring, but the Seminoles landed Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson on May 19. Maguire’s lone college start came under emergency circumstances last September when Winston was suspended for the Clemson game. Although he passed for 304 yards and the Seminoles pulled out the win in overtime, Maguire completed just 21-of-39 passes, was intercepted twice and sacked five times. Golson has more experience than Maguire, but how quickly can he learn the offense?

If the offensive line, which will be fortified by a pair of junior college transfers who sat out last season, can provide protection, Maguire will have plenty of weapons to target. Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane are coming off impressive freshman campaigns (51 receptions for 822 yards and five touchdowns combined), and juniors Jesus “Bobo” Wilson and Kermit Whitfield are looking for bigger years after struggling with consistency in 2014.

Previewing Florida State’s Defense for 2015

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Despite losing two junior starters to the NFL — tackle Eddie Goldman and end Mario Edwards Jr. — FSU again will have exceptional depth in the trenches. Senior nose tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample returns after missing nearly all of last year with a chest injury, and the Seminoles have five other interior linemen with previous playing experience. A major priority this offseason has been breathing life into the pass rush, which generated just 17 sacks in 2014.

Second-year coordinator Charles Kelly will look for major improvement from the back seven, which also lost two juniors to the draft. Junior Jalen Ramsey, who earned All-America honors at safety, moved to boundary cornerback in the spring and drew rave reviews. That opened the door for talented sophomore Trey Marshall to claim the “Star” nickel back position, and he will be joined by returning safeties Tyler Hunter and Nate Andrews.

Linebacker could be a sore spot again. Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup will start if healthy, but both are recovering from injuries, and neither was outstanding last season. Northrup, who tore his ACL vs. Oregon, can be an effective run-stuffer but sometimes struggles in space. Smith was slowed by injuries throughout his junior year and missed much of the spring with turf toe. 

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

Previewing Florida State’s Specialists for 2015
 

Junior Roberto Aguayo has been so spectacular the past two seasons that he seriously considered entering the NFL Draft. Senior punter Cason Beatty was solid in 2014, and the Seminoles’ coverage units are always very good. Great improvement is needed in the kickoff return game, where FSU averaged less than 20 yards per attempt.

Final Analysis
 

FSU had won 29 consecutive games before falling to Oregon in the Rose Bowl, so expectations will remain high in 2015. But an extremely young offense and a retooling defense likely will keep the Seminoles out of title contention. A run at a fourth-straight ACC crown would be an achievement. 

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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

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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.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#13 Arizona State Sun Devils

NATIONAL FORECAST

#13

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Todd Graham, 28-12 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Norvell | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Graham, Keith Patterson

Arizona State has won 20 games over the last two seasons and has finished as a top 25 team in back-to-back years under coach Todd Graham. And even with a few losses on both sides of the ball, the Sun Devils should be in contention for the Pac-12 South title once again in 2015. Quarterback Mike Bercovici should have a breakout year in his first as the starter, while the defense will be an aggressive group with seven returning starters.

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Previewing Arizona State’s Offense for 2015 


Usually, when a team replaces a three-year starter at quarterback, there’s going to be a drop-off. But that’s not the case at ASU. In three relief starts last year, Mike Bercovici proved he could be an elite quarterback; he has a strong arm and shows great leadership. He’s not as mobile as predecessor Taylor Kelly, so the Sun Devils will tweak their offense to suit his skills.

ASU will lean more on its running game, and it has the horses to do so, with three backs — Demario Richard, two-way player Kalen Ballage and speedster Gump Hayes — capable of doing damage. Going to the ground first also makes sense, because the two big question marks on offense most affect the passing game. ASU has to replace both of its starting tackles, and the wide receiver position has been decimated with Jaelen Strong going to the NFL and Cameron Smith sidelined the entire season after knee surgery. D.J. Foster, now a full-time slot receiver after splitting time between tailback/receiver the last three seasons, will be Bercovici’s No. 1 target. The Sun Devils picked up a late addition in the spring in UCLA transfer Devin Lucien, which gives Bercovici another proven target.

Previewing Arizona State’s Defense for 2015 

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ASU lost a couple of key players in defensive lineman Marcus Hardison and safety Damarious Randall, but coach Todd Graham has recruited so well that replacements should be able to step right in.

The strength of the defense is the back seven. ASU can rotate five linebackers without much drop-off. Keep an eye on sophomores Christian Sam and DJ Calhoun; they were pressing for starting positions in spring ball and have the sideline-to-sideline quickness Graham loves at the position.

ASU returns three starters in the secondary, and James Johnson will help negate the loss of Randall.

If there’s a concern, it’s the lack of a true pass rusher up front. Four-star junior college recruit Davon Durant was plugged in to be the Devil-backer — primarily a pass-rusher in ASU’s scheme — but he was suspended indefinitely following an arrest on allegations of domestic abuse.

Graham won’t back off despite the lack of an elite pass-rushing threat. Instead, he’ll dial up a variety of blitzes to try to keep quarterbacks guessing. It’s a dangerous gambit — Oregon State had three touchdowns of at least 35 yards in its 35–27 victory over the Devils last year — but Graham will remain aggressive. It’s who he is and how he coaches.

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

Previewing Arizona State’s Specialists for 2015 


The kicking game will be solid with punter Matt Haack and placekicker Zane Gonzalez, but the mission for new special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum is to improve the return game, which has been a disaster for ASU. The answer might be Hayes, who terrorized the defense in practices leading up to last year’s Sun Bowl. Hayes has the speed and natural running instincts to be a threat every time he touches the ball.

Final Analysis


In three seasons Graham has turned an underachieving program into one that regularly cranks out 10-win seasons. This year should be no different. ASU returns 12 starters, and that number doesn’t include Bercovici. There are some worries — most notably at wide receiver and offensive tackle — but the Sun Devils have the talent and the coaching to contend for the Pac-12 title.

The schedule is daunting, particularly early in the season. ASU opens against Texas A&M in Houston, and three of its first four conference games are USC, at UCLA and at Utah. But if the Sun Devils can somehow come out of that stretch with just one conference loss, they will be in great shape to win the Pac-12 South. Three of their final five games are at home, and the only road contests are against California and Washington State.

The Debate

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