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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

#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.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

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 

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.

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

Where Does Mike Bercovici Rank Among Pac-12 Quarterbacks?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

NATIONAL FORECAST

#12

Independents PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Brian Kelly, 45-20 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Sanford | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian VanGorder

Notre Dame has won at least eight games in each of Brian Kelly’s five seasons, but the Fighting Irish are looking to rebound after an 8-5 campaign in 2014. After a 7-1 start, Notre Dame lost four out of its last five games. Injuries and youth hindered the Fighting Irish last season, but the experience and additional depth should pay dividends for Kelly’s team in 2015.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Notre Dame’s Offense for 2015 


Notre Dame showed marked improvement in scoring (from 27.2 ppg in 2013 to 32.8 in 2014) and total offense (405.8 ypg to 444.9), and all but four starters return in ’15. The challenge is maximizing the assets. And there’s clarity at the quarterback after uncertainty surrounded this position at the end of spring ball. Everett Golson transferred in early May, which leaves the starting job to promising sophomore Malik Zaire.

The offensive line, led by veterans Ronnie Stanley (left tackle), Nick Martin (center) and Steve Elmer (right guard), is the foundation upon which the Irish attack is built.

There appear to be plenty of skill-position buttons to push, starting with wideout Will Fuller, who exploded as a sophomore with 76 receptions for 1,094 yards and a school-record-tying 15 touchdowns. Running back Tarean Folston also had a quality sophomore season (889 yards rushing). Now the challenge is to get former five-star recruit Greg Bryant in the mix with Folston.

Weapons abound in the receiving corps, but reliability is the challenge. Corey Robinson, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle have yet to put together consistent seasons. C.J. Prosise offers versatility in the backfield and receiving prowess from the slot. Durham Smythe is the heir apparent to a dynamic tight end tradition.

Previewing Notre Dame’s Defense for 2015

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

It was a tale of two defenses in 2014, but most of the unit is back. The hope is the group that held its first five opponents to 60 points (12.0 ppg) will show itself more than the defense that surrendered 319 points (39.8 ppg) against the last eight opponents.

Ringleaders include two-time captain/defensive tackle Sheldon Day (7.5 tackles for a loss, nine QB hurries), linebacker Jaylon Smith (team-leading 112 tackles, 9.0 tackles for a loss) and linebacker Joe Schmidt, who garnered defensive MVP honors despite missing the last five games with a broken ankle.

To get to the next level, the Irish will need a more stout performance up front than the 26 sacks of 2014. Defensive end Isaac Rochell (7.5 tackles for a loss, 10 QB hurries) emerged as a building block as a sophomore. Nose tackle Jarron Jones, also coming off a significant foot injury, forms a dynamic one-two punch with Day up the middle. The pass rush should come from ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti, among several candidates. Look for freshman nose tackle Jerry Tillery to make an impact.

The return of cornerback KeiVarae Russell after his academic suspension is huge. He’ll pair with Cole Luke, who tied for the team lead with four interceptions to go with 15 passes defensed and 11 broken up. Safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield struggled a good portion of the time in 2014, but they’re back and their troubles were not for a lack of talent.

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

Previewing Notre Dame’s Specialists for 2015


Do-everything Kyle Brindza is gone after a quality but often-erratic career with the Irish. There could be a drop-off punting with Tyler Newsome moving into the lineup, but highly touted true freshman kicker Justin Yoon has the skills to hit the ground running. Fuller, Carlisle and Bryant are the likely return men.

Final Analysis 


It’s the sixth year of the Brian Kelly regime, and in only one of the previous five — 2012 when the Irish played for the national title vs. Alabama — has Notre Dame finished with fewer than four losses.

This is the deepest, most well-equipped team Kelly has fielded. If the Irish can maximize Zaire’s talents at quarterback, establish a consistent ground game and play more stout up front defensively, this season should resemble 2012 more than any of the others under Kelly. That would mean playing in a New Year’s Day bowl if not contending for a playoff spot.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#14 Clemson Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#14

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Dabo Swinney, 61-26 (6+ years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Scott, Tony Elliott | DEF. COORDINATOR: Marion Hobby, Brent Venables

Clemson has won at least 10 games in four consecutive seasons, and even with personnel losses on both sides of the ball, the Tigers should be in contention for the ACC title in 2015. Quarterback Deshaun Watson should be at full strength from a torn ACL by the fall, and the rising star will be surrounded by a deep group of skill players. Only two starters return on one of the nation’s top defenses. However, Clemson has recruited well, and there’s still talent on the roster to replace some of last year’s stars.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

Previewing Clemson’s Offense for 2015
 

The moment Clemson fans had dreaded for the better part of four years finally arrived in December when offensive coordinator Chad Morris became SMU’s new head coach. But the Tigers’ offense shouldn’t look that different as long as star sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson stays healthy. Coach Dabo Swinney opted for continuity, elevating running backs coach Tony Elliott and wide receivers coach Jeff Scott to co-offensive coordinators.

Watson is the key. In eight games (five starts), he threw for 1,466 yards with 14 touchdowns against two interceptions, but he missed nearly five full games with a broken finger and later a torn ACL. He had surgery in December and will be healthy for the season opener. With Cole Stoudt at the helm, the offense largely struggled. Clemson averaged 30.8 points per game, No. 51 nationally, and ranked 110th in red zone offense.

Watson is a dynamic dual threat with excellent targets in Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, who combined for 1,995 yards with 14 touchdowns on 133 receptions a year ago. Wayne Gallman leads an improving backfield as a powerful speed back. There are questions about a line that must replace both starting guards, particularly surrounding mercurial senior left tackle Isaiah Battle. But if Watson is healthy, the Tigers’ offense should be scary good.

Previewing Clemson’s Defense for 2015

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

Brent Venables raised some eyebrows when he left Oklahoma to take over Clemson’s struggling defense in January 2012; but three years later, it looks like a brilliant move. Last fall, the Tigers had the nation’s top overall defense, allowing 260.8 yards per game, and the No. 3 scoring defense, yielding 16.7 points per game. The challenge? Repeating the feat after losing nearly the entire defensive line two-deep (including Clemson’s career sack leader Vic Beasley) as well as middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, the team’s leading tackler.

Junior defensive end Shaq Lawson will be expected to take his game to the next level: He was a freshman All-American two years ago and had 3.5 sacks as a reserve last fall.

Junior Ben Boulware, one of the defense’s most intense players, will step into a lead role at weak-side linebacker. He and senior B.J. Goodson will have to carry bigger loads while a pair of hard-hitting redshirt freshmen — Kendall Joseph and Korie Rogers — provide depth.

The secondary will be a major strength. Sophomore cornerback Mackensie Alexander established himself as one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks with excellent shutdown ability.  Safety Jayron Kearse is an athletic specimen who is expected to take the next step this fall. Clemson was No. 2 nationally in pass defense a year ago, allowing 157.4 passing yards per game, and the defense will lean on the secondary again while the new defensive line gets acclimated.

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

Previewing Clemson’s Specialists for 2015
 

Clemson’s only early draft departure was junior punter Bradley Pinion, who averaged 42.6 yards per boot. His replacement, junior Andy Teasdall, had two punts for 87 yards last fall. Kicker Ammon Lakip struggled initially while replacing Chandler Catanzaro, but he recovered to make 21-of-28 field goals and finish as a Lou Groza Award semifinalist.

Final Analysis 
 

Under Dabo Swinney, Clemson has developed into one of the nation’s steadiest programs, winning 42 games over the last four seasons with an ACC title and bowl wins over LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma. Now is the time for the Tigers to take the next step and make a run at the College Football Playoff. This group has the talent and the schedule to win the ACC. From there, the sky is the limit.

The Debate

Is Deshaun Watson the ACC's Best Quarterback for 2015?

Click here to join the debate.




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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