College Football

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#18 Ga. Tech Yellow Jackets

NATIONAL FORECAST

#18

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Paul Johnson, 59-35 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Paul Johnson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ted Roof

Georgia Tech suffered some key losses in the backfield and at receiver, but coach Paul Johnson’s team is positioned for another run at the Coastal Division title. The Yellow Jackets return 13 starters, with the most important being quarterback Justin Thomas. The defense ranked near the bottom of the ACC in the four main statistical categories but improvement should be noticeable in 2015.  

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Previewing Georgia Tech’s Offense for 2015
 

Georgia Tech’s disappointing 2013 season raised questions about the direction of the program heading into last fall. That was particularly true on offense, where Paul Johnson attempted to customize his option playbook for quarterback Vad Lee’s throwing ability with mediocre results. With Justin Thomas at the controls in 2014, however, the Yellow Jackets got back to a more traditional option look and became as dangerous on offense by the end of the season as at any time in Johnson’s tenure.

With Thomas’ speed, elusiveness and intelligence, Georgia Tech should once again be among the nation’s most prolific rushing teams. Thomas has a chance to exceed his single-season school record (for quarterbacks) of 1,086 rushing yards and solidify his status as one of the nation’s must-watch players. 

Georgia Tech loses its running back trio of Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins, who accounted for 377 carries and 2,218 yards last season. But most of those concerns will be eased by the depth on the offensive line — four starters and a handful of others with experience return — and the talent that has been groomed to replace them. A-back Broderick Snoddy showed big-play ability in a limited role before breaking his leg last season. However, depth at B-back is a concern after C.J. Leggett, the expected starter, was sidelined with a torn ACL in the spring. Patrick Skov – a graduate transfer from Stanford – is expected to factor into the backfield this season.

Georgia Tech will also look for young receivers to step up after losing DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller, who had a knack for making timely catches.

Previewing Georgia Tech’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.

Johnson won’t sugarcoat the Jackets’ struggles on defense, particularly against the run. “We weren’t very good,” he says of a unit that gave up 25.7 points and 411.3 yards per game last year. Depth along the defensive front was a major concern, and it will likely remain that way. The good news for the Yellow Jackets is that their first team is solid with senior All-ACC performer Adam Gotsis anchoring the interior and KeShun Freeman coming off a season in which he earned various Freshman All-America honors at end. Johnson is counting on Jabari Hunt-Days, academically ineligible last season, to make a big impact after moving from end to tackle and bulking up to 295 pounds.

Losing All-ACC linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, who contributed 92 tackles, two interceptions and three fumble recoveries last season, leaves a big hole in the middle of the defense. But the Yellow Jackets are hoping for some of the same attributes out of senior Tyler Marcordes, who had 5.5 tackles for a loss and a pair of sacks.

Georgia Tech should be solid in the secondary with senior safety Jamal Golden, who had 61 tackles and four interceptions. Georgia Tech remains stable at cornerback with seniors Chris Milton and D.J. White, who was involved in game-saving takeaways against Virginia Tech and Georgia. 

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

Previewing Georgia Tech’s Specialists for 2015
 

Georgia Tech is looking for more consistency out of junior kicker Harrison Butker, who made some high-pressure kicks — such as a 53-yarder at Georgia to send the game to overtime — but also had five misses inside 40 yards. Junior punter Ryan Rodwell returns after an ACC-low 32 attempts last season.

Final Analysis 
 

Coming off an 11-win season capped by a dominant Orange Bowl victory, there are more positive vibes and higher expectations around the program than any time in recent memory. Though Tech will need to re-tool in some areas, having Thomas for two more years means the offense will continue to be potent. Defense is always a question mark for the Yellow Jackets because they don’t have overwhelming athletes, but if Ted Roof’s unit makes even incremental improvement, another ACC Coastal Division title is well within reach. 

The Debate

Is Justin Thomas the ACC's Best QB for 2015?

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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.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

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

#19 Wisconsin Badgers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#19

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Paul Chryst, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joe Rudolph | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Aranda

Wisconsin has a new coach (Paul Chryst), but the expectations remain the same in Madison. Led by talented junior running back Corey Clement and a solid defense, the Badgers are Athlon’s pick to win the Big Ten’s West Division. Question marks remain about this team, especially at quarterback and receiver. However, with Nebraska and Minnesota each having their own share of concerns, Wisconsin should make another trip to the Big Ten Championship.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

Previewing Wisconsin’s Offense for 2015 
 

Paul Chryst oversaw some of the most explosive offenses in program history as a coordinator at Wisconsin, but the unit he inherits in his first season as head coach of the Badgers has some major question marks. Start with the offensive line, the engine that powers Wisconsin’s power-running attack. Senior left tackle Tyler Marz and junior center Dan Voltz return, but the Badgers must replace three starters, and the next players in line have precious little experience. Some of the team’s best recruits the past two seasons have been linemen, and the Badgers will need a few members of that crop to grow up in a hurry.

Wisconsin returns a fifth-year senior quarterback with 28 career starts and 21 victories, but Joel Stave has struggled with consistency and is coming off a season in which he completed 53.4 percent of his passes and finished with more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine). The good news for Stave is that he finished the 2014 season strong and he’s comfortable with Chryst, who helped recruit Stave to Wisconsin as a preferred walk-on.

Wide receiver Alex Erickson was a pleasant surprise last season, finishing with a team-leading 55 receptions for 772 yards. But the senior needs some help from a supporting cast that includes junior Robert Wheelwright, whose only reception in 2014 was a 17-yard touchdown vs. Minnesota in the regular-season finale. Tight ends get a lot of love in Chryst’s offense, so sophomore Troy Fumagalli could be in line for a breakout season.

Oh, and by the way, the Badgers have to replace tailback Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 2,587 yards, scored 32 touchdowns and finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Junior Corey Clement will take over as the primary ball carrier.

Previewing Wisconsin’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.

One of Chryst’s biggest recruits after being hired at Wisconsin was retaining defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who oversaw a unit that finished fourth nationally in total defense and 17th in scoring defense.

Aranda has some holes to fill, but he also has some nice pieces to build around. The biggest is junior outside linebacker Vince Biegel, who led the Badgers with 16.5 tackles for a loss last season and added 7.5 sacks. Lining up at the other outside linebacker spot in Aranda’s 3-4 defense will be senior Joe Schobert, who had 13.5 tackles for a loss in 2014.

Senior safety Michael Caputo headlines an experienced secondary that also returns both starting cornerbacks, senior Darius Hillary and junior Sojourn Shelton. The Badgers need more ballhawking from this unit in 2015 after finishing with only six interceptions last season, none of which came from cornerbacks.

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

Previewing Wisconsin’s Specialists for 2015
 

Placekicker Rafael Gaglianone had an excellent freshman season, finishing 19-of-22 on field goals. He made his final 14 tries of the season and was a respectable 5-of-7 from 40 yards and beyond. Senior punter Drew Meyer was terrific as a freshman — he averaged 41.5 yards per attempt and landed 36 of his 80 punts inside the 20-yard line — but is coming off back-to-back subpar seasons. The Badgers are looking for a new returner after Kenzel Doe exhausted his eligibility.

Final Analysis
 

Chryst has a good track record with quarterbacks, which bodes well for Stave. But the inexperience and lack of depth on the offensive line is a major concern, especially since it’s considered the program’s bedrock. The defense should be solid enough to keep Wisconsin in most games, though Aranda would like to see the Badgers force more turnovers. Wisconsin’s schedule is manageable — at least once it gets past the opener against Alabama — and the Badgers should be able to make a run at a second consecutive Big Ten West Division title. 

The Debate

Where Does Paul Chryst Rank Among the Big Ten's 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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