College Football

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#72 East Carolina Pirates

NATIONAL FORECAST

#72

American Athletic PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Ruffin McNeill, 37-27 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dave Nichol | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rick Smith

East Carolina enters 2015 without three of the key cogs of its offense — quarterback Shane Carden, receiver Justin Hardy and coordinator Lincoln Riley. Those are major departures, but with eight bowl games in the last nine seasons, the Pirates are rarely out of the mix.

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Previewing East Carolina’s Offense for 2015 
 

Some of the Pirates’ top swashbucklers are gone, including offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (off to Oklahoma) and the AAC Player of the Year, quarterback Shane Carden. That doesn’t mean the Air Raid offense is taking on water. New OC Dave Nichol is confident that strong-armed sophomore Kurt Benkert can step in and keep the ship on course.

There’s still a treasure chest of receivers, even without Justin Hardy and Cam Worthy (who combined for 2,510 yards and 14 scores last year). Returnees such as Isaiah Jones (81 catches, second on the team), Davon Grayson, Jimmy Williams and Trevon Brown will share Benkert’s booty in the passing game. Don’t count out eagerly anticipated freshman Deondre Farrier, who was wooed by Florida, Miami and USC, among others. 

In a subtle tweak, 6'6", 250-pound Bryce Williams might be listed as an inside receiver in the spread but actually is an old-fashioned tight end. He will see more action than just around the goal line, where he terrorizes defensive backs and linebackers. On the ground, Chris Hairston (6.7 yards per carry) and a couple of other solid candidates operate behind a big, veteran offensive line that will be a strength of the team under new line coach Brad Davis. 

The big concern is that Benkert threw only 10 passes last year. He was a quick study in the spring, and the offense should again set sail, maybe with a more stellar running game to punch up the red-zone offense. 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing East Carolina’s Defense for 2015 
 

The Pirates like to stop the run — they were 11th in the nation, allowing just 111.8 rushing yards per game — and get after opponents on third down (13th, yielding just 34.2 percent conversions). 

Linebacker Zeek Bigger is the returning tackles leader (140), but fellow senior Montese Overton should be the next big thing. He has all the tools. Physical Devaris Brunson is back from his knee injury in the middle, too, and walk-on Joe Allely just keeps improving on the weak side. Incoming junior college linebacker Darius Wright will get a long look, too. 

The backers will need help from a rebuilding front. End Johnathon White is the only returning starter, and he’ll get a push from K’Hadree Hooker. Terrell Stanley has made a dramatic return from injuries suffered in an auto accident that sidelined him last year. He was honorable mention All-C-USA in 2013. Former Georgia Tech signee Darius Commissiong could figure in, too. 

Senior cornerback Josh Hawkins is a ball hawk who had five interceptions and broke up 11 more passes. Free safety Travon Simmons and corner Rocco Scarfone came on strong late last year and look assured of jobs as well in a deep, experienced secondary.

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

Previewing East Carolina’s Specialists for 2015 
 

Texas A&M transfer Davis Plowman is the favorite to fill Warren Harvey’s shoes as the placekicker, and that won’t be easy after Harvey set the career ECU scoring record. Punter Worth Gregory averaged 43.6 yards, put 19 kicks inside the 20-yard line and had 13 50-yard boots on his way to Ray Guy Award consideration. 

Final Analysis 
 

Ruffin McNeill, on a cane all spring after hip surgery, can stand tall with what he has done in Greenville at his alma mater. The Pirates were 5–3 in their first year in the American Athletic Conference and went to their fourth bowl in McNeill’s five seasons. He graduated the leading passer in school history and the FBS’s all-time receptions leader (Hardy), but he had a 105-man roster out in spring, certainly a sign of a healthy program. If his young quarterback comes through, it looks like he has another bowl team to lean on.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#71 Colorado State Rams

NATIONAL FORECAST

#71

MW Mountain Division PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Mike Bobo, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Will Friend | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tyson Summers

Colorado State is coming off its best season since 2002, a 10-3 season that saw the Rams challenge for a Mountain West title and propel coach Jim McElwain to the Florida job. After four seasons of improving its win total, Colorado State enters uncertain territory with new coach Mike Bobo, the former offensive coordinator at Georgia.

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Previewing Colorado State’s Offense for 2015  
 

Quarterback Garrett Grayson, who rewrote Colorado State’s passing record book, is gone, as is last year’s leading rusher, Dee Hart. There’s a new coach in Mike Bobo and a new offense he brought with him from Georgia to learn. But three starters on the offensive line are back, as is receiver Rashard Higgins. A finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s outstanding receiver last year, Higgins led the nation in receiving yards (1,750) and touchdown catches (17).

Sophomore quarterback Nick Stevens, last year’s backup, picked up the new offense quickly during spring practices and seemed to have a pretty good grasp of what he’ll be expected to do this fall. The quarterbacks in Bobo’s pro-style offense have to make a number of reads at the line of scrimmage to get the offense into the right play based on what the defense is showing.

Fullbacks have returned to the CSU offense in an effort to build a powerful ground game that will wear opponents down. Sophomore Dalyn Dawkins, a transfer from Purdue, impressed coaches with his toughness this spring and could emerge as the primary running back over returnees Treyous Jarrells (87 carries for 450 yards and six touchdowns in 2014) and Jasen Oden (46 carries, 276 yards, two touchdowns), both seniors.

The Rams have two of the top tight ends in the Mountain West in seniors Steven Walker, a returning all-conference performer, and Kivon Cartwright.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Colorado State’s Defense for 2015 
 

The Rams are moving from a 3-4 base to a 4-3 under new coordinator Tyson Summers, who directed one of the nation’s top defensive units last year at UCF. The biggest change, players say, is that defensive linemen are being asked to make plays themselves instead of filling gaps so the linebackers can come in and make the tackles.

The Rams return four starters in the secondary, where senior safeties Kevin Pierre-Louis (85 tackles) and Trent Matthews (54 tackles) and junior nickel back Preston Hodges (69 tackles) are the top returning tacklers on the defense. Junior cornerback Tyree Simmons had a strong spring.

The strength of the defense, though, is likely to be the linebackers, Bobo says. Juniors Kevin Davis and Deionte Clyburn played a lot as backups last fall, and sophomore Kiel Robinson was a top performer in spring drills. Senior Cory James returns on the outside, where he has 21 sacks over the past three seasons, including a team-leading 6.5 in 2014. 
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Colorado State’s Specialists for 2015  
 

Junior punter Hayden Hunt returns after averaging 43.8 yards a kick last season. But the Rams have to replace kicker Jared Roberts, who scored 270 points over the past four seasons and set a Mountain West record by making 111 consecutive PATs. Deointe Gaines is back to return kicks after averaging 24.9 yards as a true freshman, and senior Joe Hansley averaged 9.7 yards on six punt returns last season. Bobo retained three of former coach Jim McElwain’s assistants, including special teams coordinator Jeff Hammerschmidt. So the Rams won’t be making the kind of wholesale changes in the kicking game that they’re making on offense and defense.

Final Analysis
 

It will be hard to match the success the Rams had last season, when they won nine games in a row and posted only the fifth 10-win season in school history. There’s bound to be a drop-off as they learn new schemes and replace key players. McElwain left the program in good shape, though, with solid depth at most positions and some talented players who are ready to step into starring roles. A third consecutive bowl appearance is well within reach.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#70 Marshall Thundering Herd

NATIONAL FORECAST

#70

C-USA East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Doc Holliday, 40-25 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill Legg | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Heater

A year after a near-perfect season, Marshall still hopes to be in contention for a Conference USA title. The Thundering Herd lost 67-66 to WKU in overtime for their only loss of the season in 2014. Marshall has the personnel and schedule to challenge for another C-USA title — but it may again come down to a date with the Hilltoppers to end the season.

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Previewing Marshall’s Offense for 2015 
 

Michael Birdsong, a 6'5", 242-pound transfer from James Madison, steps in at quarterback to replace Rakeem Cato, who produced nearly 15,000 total yards and 146 touchdowns in his career. Birdsong possesses a live arm and the starting experience to help Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg keep his attack in the top 15 nationally for a fourth-straight year.

Birdsong will have plenty of help from a veteran group of skill players that includes senior running back Devon Johnson and junior Remi Watson as well as a bevy of talented receivers. Johnson rushed for 1,767 yards — sixth best in FBS — and 17 touchdowns last year, while Watson added another 546 yards on the ground for an offense that averaged 6.8 yards per rush in 2014.

While there is a new quarterback, the targets at receiver are familiar. Davonte Allen, Angelo Jean-Louis and Deon-Tay McManus provide the Herd with guys who can stretch the field. Marshall has to replace Tommy Shuler, who left as Conference USA’s all-time leader in receptions, but the Herd coaching staff is high on Hyleck Foster, who had a strong year as a freshman reserve.

Along the offensive front, Marshall has moved right guard Michael Selby to center to replace four-year starter Chris Jasperse, who logged more than 4,000 career snaps. Right tackle Clint Van Horn and left guard Sebastian Johansson are proven starters, but the unproven entity will be sophomore Sandley Jean-Felix, who will assume the left tackle spot.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Marshall’s Defense for 2015 
 

Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater transformed a team that was next to last in the nation in scoring defense in 2012 to a defense that was No. 18 in 2014, but his hands are full in 2015.

Top cornerback Darryl Roberts is gone, along with linebacker Neville Hewitt, who was Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. While Hewitt’s loss looks biggest on paper, Roberts had keyed the defensive turnaround with an ability to win one-on-one battles, which freed up Heater to send multiple blitzes at the opposition. To continue this scheme, cornerbacks Keith Baxter, Antavis Rowe and Chris Williams-Hall will need to emerge quickly as physical defenders.

Hewitt became a leader in the middle of the defense last season, but Marshall is high on Shawn Petty, a transfer from Maryland who excelled in the spring. Petty joins D.J. Hunter and Evan McKelvey in a linebacking corps that should be among the best in the conference. McKelvey returns after missing much of 2014 with a knee injury.

The biggest defensive concerns will be the lack of a proven pass rusher, so big things will be asked of UCF transfer Blake Keller. Gary Thompson has shown his playmaking ability in spurts, and Joe Massaquoi is a guy who had a solid preseason.

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

Previewing Marshall’s Specialists for 2015
 

Marshall returns one of the nation’s top punters in Tyler Williams, a Ray Guy Award candidate who has averaged 43.7 yards per punt in his career. Nick Smith is the likely replacement for Justin Haig at kicker, but Amoreto Curraj, who will handle kickoff duties, is also a candidate. The Herd’s kick return game looks strong with Deandre Reaves, who returned a kickoff for a score in the bowl win. Foster is the likely punt returner.

Final Analysis 
 

Johnson’s return and a bevy of talented receivers help ease the pressure on Birdsong for an offense that has eclipsed 500 yards per game on average for each of the last three seasons. If the defense provides anything this season, the Herd — who face another soft schedule — should be in contention for a Conference USA Championship and potential New Year’s Six bowl berth. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#69 WKU Hilltoppers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#69

C-USA East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Jeff Brohm, 8-5 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tyson Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Holt

As far as entertainment value, there was no better ticket in college football late last season than Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers defeated Marshall in overtime and then defeated Central Michigan in a bowl game. The two games totaled 230 points and each were decided by one point. With seven starters — including a quarterback and running back — returning on offense, WKU is built for fireworks again.
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Previewing WKU’s Offense for 2015 
 

Conference USA opponents, especially the defensive coordinators, must have gasped when the NCAA granted WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty a sixth season with a medical hardship waiver. Combined with running back Leon Allen, no QB-RB duo in FBS history has matched their staggering numbers of last season. Doughty led the nation with 4,830 passing yards, and Allen ran for 1,542, giving them a combined 6,372 yards, surpassing the previous record of 5,840 yards set by Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III (4,293) and running back Terrance Ganaway (1,547) in 2011. 

The Hilltoppers set or tied 50 offensive team and individual records. Only five quarterbacks since 1956 have thrown more than Doughty’s 49 touchdown passes that also led the nation. 

So much for the Hilltoppers’ offense taking a step back with the departure after one year of coach Bobby Petrino to Louisville. Rookie coach Jeff Brohm put the offense into an even higher gear, and more of the same can be expected with the return of three starters on the line — left tackle Forrest Lamp and guards Brandon Ray and Darrell Williams.

Also back is Doughty’s favorite target, senior receiver Jared Dangerfield, who had a school-record 69 catches for 825 yards and 11 touchdowns. Allen also is a receiving threat; his 476 yards pushed him over 2,000 yards from scrimmage.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing WKU’s Defense for 2015 
 

The Hilltoppers have a lot of catching up to do on the opposite side of the ball. The return of seven starters, plus the addition of UAB transfer Jontavious Morris, should improve a unit that nationally ranked 120th in total defense and 121st in scoring defense.

The top four tacklers return, including senior middle linebacker Nick Holt, the heart and soul of the defense. The son of defensive coordinator Nick Holt Sr., Holt had 111 tackles. Also returning to flank Holt at outside linebacker is senior Dejon Brown, who was second on the team with 78 tackles.

Morris isn’t listed as a returning starter for WKU, but he would have been for UAB had it not disbanded its program. At 6'2", 295 pounds, he will plug the middle at tackle after playing nose guard for the Blazers.

Strong safety Branden Leston and free safety Marcus Ward each had 63 tackles. Lesten led the team with four interceptions, while senior cornerback Wonderful Terry was indeed wonderful on his two interceptions, returning both for touchdowns. 

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

Previewing WKU’s Specialists for 2015 
 

Kicker Garrett Schwettman and punter Joseph Occhipinti return. Schwettman had plenty of extra-point attempts to go with making 16-of-21 field-goal tries. The Hilltoppers didn’t do a lot of punting, but when they did, Occhipinti averaged 37.1 yards per try. Sophomore Kylen Towner has emerged as a reliable returner on kickoffs and punts. He averaged 22.7 on kickoff returns, including one of 94 yards for a score.

Final Analysis
 

Few programs have transitioned to the FBS level as well as WKU, which is just six years into its move up from FCS. Of 27 teams to make the jump since 1987, only eight reached a second bowl game during a six-year window. Eight of 20 head coaching openings in the country last year were filled by first-time head coaches, and Brohm was the only one of the eight to win a bowl game.

With all the offensive weapons returning, especially Doughty and Allen, the Hilltoppers will continue to score points. If the defense can at least start to slow teams down, WKU is poised to make that next jump to becoming a consistent Conference USA challenger. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#68 San Diego State Aztecs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#68

MW West Division PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Rocky Long, 32-20 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Horton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rocky Long

Under Brady Hoke and Rocky Long, San Diego State has become a regular winner, reaching five consecutive bowl games. The bar has been raised enough to where last season’s 7-6 season qualifies as a disappointment. The Aztecs should continue to contend in the Mountain West, but their ceiling may depend on the health of a transfer quarterback from Kentucky.

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Previewing San Diego State’s Offense for 2015
 

Transfer quarterback Maxwell Smith distanced himself from second-stringer Christian Chapman and Oregon transfer Jake Rodrigues in spring drills and gives San Diego State an experienced leader. Smith is a former starter at Kentucky and is battled-tested after facing sturdy SEC defenses. He could excel in the Mountain West.

Running back Donnel Pumphrey rushed for a school-record 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore, and he is on pace to join Marshall Faulk (4,589), Larry Ned (3,562) and Ronnie Hillman (3,243) as the only rushers in school history to reach 3,000 career yards. The 5'9", 170-pound Pumphrey has proven he can carry a huge workload, and San Diego State plans to rely heavily on him again this season. 

The Aztecs are hoping that Eric Judge (24 receptions last season) will step up as a go-to receiver, and Lloyd Mills (22) should be the other starter after the dismissal of Larry Clark. The offensive line suffered a blow when starting center Lenicio Noble and backup guard Paul Rodriguez were booted from the squad, but the unit returns starting guards Nico Siragusa and Darrell Greene.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing San Diego State’s Defense for 2015
 

The Aztecs allowed just 19.8 points per game last season and received good news when cornerback J.J. Whittaker and middle linebacker Jake Fely were awarded an extra season of eligibility. Both players missed large parts or all of multiple seasons due to injuries, and the welcome development makes San Diego State’s defense even sturdier. 

Big-play outside linebacker Calvin Munson is the star of the unit after leading the team with four interceptions and with 10.5 tackles for a loss, including a team-high four sacks. Fely has started 30 career games but was healthy for just three contests last season. 

The return of Whittaker (two interceptions) means that all five secondary starters in the Aztecs’ 3-3-5 alignment are returning. Cornerback Damontae Kazee broke up 13 passes last season, and safeties Malik Smith (three interceptions), Na’im McGee and Trey Lomax all had solid campaigns in 2014 and should be even better this fall. 

Defensive end Alex Barrett had nine tackles for a loss before having his season cut short by a foot injury, and nose tackle Christian Heyward has the potential to mix it up in the interior.

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

Previewing San Diego State’s Specialists for 2015
 

Donny Hageman was an improvement over San Diego State’s 2013 kicking fiascos, but his 20-of-25 field-goal campaign didn’t come without a glitch. Hageman had a chance to be a hero in the Poinsettia Bowl but missed a 34-yarder with 20 seconds left to allow Navy to post a 17–16 victory. He has a solid leg on kickoffs, which often helps with field position. Junior college transfer Tanner Blain likely will be the punter to replace departed Joel Alesi. Mills is a solid punt returner who took one back for a score in 2014.

Final Analysis

San Diego State has gone to five consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history and has been steady but not spectacular in four seasons under coach Rocky Long’s leadership. The seven victories in 2014 were the Aztecs’ fewest since 2009 (under Brady Hoke), and there is now an expectation of a winning season and bowl game appearance every year. 

If Smith can avoid the injuries that hindered him at Kentucky and can provide the downfield passing attack San Diego State lacked last season, the Aztecs will be a solid threat to reach the Mountain West title game. The defense is strong enough for San Diego State to win the division crown, and there is enough overall talent for the Aztecs to set winning the conference championship as a legitimate goal.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#67 Colorado Buffaloes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#67

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Mike MacIntyre, 6-18 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Lindgren | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jim Leavitt

Thought this may be tough to prove to an outsider, Colorado improved in 2014 despite a 2-10 record and a winless Pac-12 season. The Buffaloes were more competitive at least as far as the scoreboard was concerned in the second season under Mike MacIntyre. If the Buffs can flip the margins a little further and sweep its non-conference schedule, they will start to show more tangible progress.

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Previewing Colorado’s Offense in 2015 


Colorado took some big steps forward offensively in 2014, ranking 40th in the nation in yards per game, up 50 spots from the previous season. The Buffs are hoping to build on that success with many of their key contributors back. 

Junior Sefo Liufau will enter the season as the starting quarterback for the second consecutive year hoping to build on his successes as a sophomore while also focusing on taking better care of the ball. He has 18 starts under his belt, has attempted 749 passes and thrown for nearly 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. There is a lot to like about that experience, but Liufau also has thrown 23 interceptions, and he’ll have to dramatically curtail his miscues for the Buffs to take a big step forward in the win column. 

Nelson Spruce was on the other end of almost one-third of Liufau’s completions last season, hauling in 106 passes for 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns. Speedy Shay Fields caught 50 balls as a true freshman last year. 

Christian Powell has led the Buffs in rushing for three straight years, though his role has diminished since carrying the ball 158 times as a true freshman in 2012. Michael Adkins II and sophomore Phillip Lindsay played extensively in the four-back rotation Colorado employed in 2014.  Colorado added Boise State transfer Aaron Baltazar to the roster and also signed two running backs from the high school ranks.

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.

Previewing Colorado’s Defense in 2015 
 

Stopping opponents has been a problem since Colorado joined the Pac-12. The Buffs ranked 102nd in the nation in rushing defense and 116th in scoring defense last season. Those numbers led head coach Mike MacIntyre to hire a new defensive coordinator in former South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt, and he added former Central Michigan defensive coordinator Joe Tumpkin to coach safeties. 

Nose tackle Josh Tupou is a three-year starter who has NFL potential. Samson Kafovalu took the 2014 season off for personal reasons but has returned to bolster the interior. Defensive end Derek McCartney is coming off a strong redshirt freshman season. Junior college transfers Jordan Carrell, Blake Robbins and Leo Jackson look like impact players. 

MacIntyre has two experienced linebackers in juniors Addison Gillam and Kenneth Olugbode. Keeping them healthy is a must because there isn’t much experience behind them. 

The secondary might be the deepest and most talented unit on the team, thanks in part to senior safety Jered Bell being awarded a sixth season of eligibility. Cornerback Ken Crawley will be starting for the fourth straight year. 
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Colorado’s Specialists in 2015 


CU lost four-year starters at placekicker and punter but might have addressed both positions by signing standout Alex Kinney from just up the road in Fort Collins. Kinney was rated among the nation’s best punters coming out of high school. He could steal the placekicking duties away from Diego Gonzalez, a lefty who has struggled with accuracy but has a strong leg, and walk-on Chris Graham, who competed with Gonzalez in the spring. 

Final Analysis


Colorado won only two games in coach MacIntyre’s second season and went winless in conference play for the first time in 99 years. Despite those harsh realities, there were tangible signs that the program is finally on the right track and in position to become more competitive in the Pac-12. Four of the Buffaloes’ nine league losses came by five points or fewer, including double-overtime losses to Cal and UCLA. The goal in Year 3 is to turn some of those close losses into wins and make a move out of the Pac-12 South basement.

The Debate

Is Nelson Spruce the Top WR in the Pac-12?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#66 Washington State Cougars

NATIONAL FORECAST

#66

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Mike Leach, 12-25 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Leach | DEF. COORDINATOR: Alex Grinch

Washington State may have been ahead of schedule when the Cougars reached a bowl game in 2013, even if they finished with a losing record after the collapse against Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl. After a 3-9 season, Washington State needs to get back on track in the fourth season under Mike Leach. The Cougars will have a new quarterback who got his feet wet last season and a new defensive coordinator, so this may be an uphill climb.

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Previewing Washington State’s Offense for 2015
 

Little-known redshirt freshman Luke Falk filled in admirably when starter Connor Halliday went down against USC, throwing for 346 yards and two touchdowns. He won his first start by tossing five touchdowns at Oregon State and showed impressive poise and mobility while finishing the season with 13 touchdown passes and more than 1,800 yards in just six games. 

The Cougars return their top two running backs — Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks — and add explosive former receiver Keith Harrington to the mix. Throw in the fact that WSU also returns all five starting offensive linemen, and it’s a good bet that the Cougars will run the ball a fair amount more this fall. In fact, while the Cougars have been exclusively a shotgun team since coach Mike Leach arrived at WSU in 2012, he says that the quarterbacks could be under center as often as 25 percent of the time in 2015, in part to give the running backs better angles.

On the one hand, the Cougars lose two of the most productive receivers in school history in Isiah Myers (78 catches, 12 touchdowns) and Biletnikoff Award semifinalist Vince Mayle (106 catches, 1,483 yards). But the Cougars will get back Gabe Marks, who redshirted last season after leading the Cougars in catches (74), yards (807) and tying for the team lead with seven touchdowns in 2013. Marks and playmaking receiver Dom Williams will start at the outside positions, while speedster Robert Lewis will be inside along with River Cracraft, who provides consistency and was a favorite target on third downs.

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.

Previewing Washington State’s Defense for 2015


Defensive coordinator Mike Breske was dismissed during last season’s disappointing campaign. Leach hired Alex Grinch, the safeties coach at Missouri, to replace him. Grinch’s emphasis is on speed, and in spring practice the Cougars worked almost exclusively out of a nickel defense.

Defensive end Xavier Cooper left early for the NFL Draft, but replacing his five sacks is doable. Potentially more challenging will be finding a nose tackle to replace Kalafitoni Pole, WSU’s starter in the middle of the line the last two seasons. Making things more difficult, two of the true nose tackles on the roster, Robert Barber and Ngalu Tapa, both missed the spring with injuries.

Jeremiah Allison and Peyton Pelluer return to head the linebackers, of which typically there will be only two on the field at one time. Getting to the quarterback will be an emphasis for Grinch, and indications this spring were that the weak-side backer will spend a lot of time in opposing backfields.

Darius Lemora started 10 games at safety for the Cougars last year, and he will take over as the full-time nickel back. Marcellus Pippins and Charleston White each played well at times last year, and they will get looks at cornerback along with junior college transfer Treshon Broughton following the dismissal of Daquawn Brown, the team’s leading tackler. Sulaiman Hameed and Isaac Dotson were the starting safeties during spring practice, but four-star junior college signee Shalom Luani joins the mix this fall.
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Washington State’s Specialists in 2015 


Erik Powell lost his starting job to Quentin Breshears after hitting just 2-of-5 attempts to start the season, but it looks like the coaches will give him another shot. Since Jordan Dascalo left the team after starting each game as a freshman, Powell will have a chance to assume punting duties as well. Expect incoming freshman Matt Abramo to also figure into the mix.

Final Analysis


After making their first bowl game in a decade in 2013, the Cougars backslid last season. Experience and depth are still issues, but the hope in Pullman is that the coaching changes combined with an infusion of junior college talent will help this team get back to the postseason.

The Debate

Where Does Mike Leach Rank Among Pac-12 Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#65 Rutgers Scarlet Knights

NATIONAL FORECAST

#65

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Kyle Flood, 23-16 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Ben McDaniels | DEF. COORDINATOR: Joe Rossi

After Rutgers first season in the league, fans in the Big Ten still don’t know what to make of the Scarlet Knights. Kyle Flood got a lot out of his team last fall but enters his important fourth season with increased pressure and a rebuilt depth chart. In a brutal division, returning to a bowl game should be a reasonable goal.

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Previewing Rutgers’ Offense for 2015


Rutgers has had a revolving door for offensive coordinators, but the Scarlet Knights’ sixth play-caller in as many years isn’t expected to change things much from last season. Ben McDaniels spent last year as an apprentice to Ralph Friedgen, the longtime Maryland head coach who decided to retire after his one season calling plays for the Scarlet Knights. Under the 67-year-old Friedgen’s tutelage, Rutgers ranked seventh in the Big Ten in total offense, but McDaniels insists he won’t tinker much with the pro-style system this fall.

There is plenty of uncertainty at the quarterback position, where a pair of redshirt sophomores will compete for the right to replace four-year starter Gary Nova. Chris Laviano held a slight edge over LSU transfer Hayden Rettig in spring practice, but Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood figures to use the first few weeks of training camp before anointing either player as the starter. Whichever quarterback wins the job, he will have plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal, including a wide receiver — Leonte Carroo — who stiff-armed the NFL Draft to return for his senior campaign and one of the deepest backfields in the Big Ten. Paul James, Justin Goodwin, Josh Hicks, Robert Martin and Desmon Peoples have all started games for Flood, who figures to give James every opportunity to regain the starting nod after a knee injury derailed a promising campaign a year ago. 

Previewing Rutgers’ 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.

A step up in conference class resulted in Rutgers’ defense ranking near the bottom of every meaningful statistic in the Big Ten last season. In their first season under the direction of defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, the Scarlet Knights yielded a combined 180 points in losing to the league’s top four teams. A defensive unit that graduated six starters faces the same quartet again this season.

Darius Hamilton, a two-year starter at defensive tackle and returning captain, is the heart and soul of a unit that will look to shore up a run defense that ranked 106th nationally last season.

“From a talent standpoint, this might be one of the best defenses I’ve been around,’’ Hamilton says, pointing to an experienced secondary featuring cornerbacks Nadir Barnwell and Anthony Cioffi and a linebacker corps that includes returning starters Quentin Gause and Steve Longa. “This is a really talented group. I think the only After Rutgers first season in the league, fans in the Big Ten still don’t know what to make of the Scarlet Knights. Kyle Flood got a lot out of his team last fall but enters his important fourth season with increased pressure but a rebuilt depth chart. In a brutal division, returning to a bowl game should be a reasonable goal.


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

Previewing Rutgers’ Specialists for 2015


The Scarlet Knights have traditionally been a force on special teams, blocking more kicks (41) than any team in the country since the 2009 season. Kemoko Turay led the country with three blocked kicks last season, including a potential go-ahead field goal against Michigan. While Kyle Federico made 16-of-21 field goal attempts, the placekicking operation was plagued by some errant snaps from long snapper Alan Lucy, who will need to show improvement in his second season handling the job. Joe Roth and Tim Gleeson battled for the starting punting job throughout last season, and the result saw Rutgers rank fourth-worst among Big Ten teams in net punting. Gleeson holds a slight edge in the competition heading into training camp.

Final Analysis

No one expected life in the Big Ten to be easy for Rutgers, and losses to Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State by a combined 180–44 score showed that the Scarlet Knights have a long way to go before they can compete with the cream of the conference crop. Rutgers’ quest to reach a bowl game for the 10th time in 11 years will depend on whether Flood can find enough offense to compensate for a young defensive corps that figures to struggle against elite Big Ten competition once again.   

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#63 UCF Knights

NATIONAL FORECAST

#63

American Athletic East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: George O'Leary, 81-60 (11 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brent Key | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Bresnahan

George O’Leary followed up his Fiesta Bowl victory with another nine wins for UCF in 2014. His Knights return just 10 starters on a team that consistently contends in the American Athletic Conference. Those thinking UCF takes a step back just because of a few key departures should be careful of O’Leary’s always tough Knights.

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Previewing UCF’s Offense for 2015


A year ago, UCF’s biggest question was who would replace Blake Bortles at quarterback. It took until the beginning of the season, but the staff found the answer in Justin Holman, who overcame early inconsistency to post a solid sophomore campaign, completing 223-of-392 passes for 2,952 yards with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Now with a year of experience, there’s a sense Holman is poised for a breakout season.

Holman will be complemented with experience in the backfield and offensive line. Running back William Stanback missed several games due to nagging injuries, but the junior still was named all-conference for the second consecutive year after rushing for 697 yards and 10 touchdowns.

All but one of the key linemen return, and coaches are hopeful they’ll get center/guard Joey Grant back at full strength after offseason shoulder surgery.

The glaring issue is at wide receiver, where UCF must replace virtually every key player from 2014. The departure list includes NFL early entry Breshad Perriman, last year’s No. 1 target and a 1,000-yard receiver. The most experienced returnee is Jordan Akins, a former minor league baseball player who caught only 12 passes a year ago. Redshirt freshman Tre’Quan Smith is perhaps the most talented of the group and was Holman’s favorite target during the spring. With the shortage of experience, it’s quite possible all three of the incoming receiver recruits will suit up to play.


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

Previewing UCF’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

In 2014, UCF finished fifth nationally in total defense (298.5 ypg) and ninth in scoring defense (19.2 ppg), but there are big shoes to fill with seven departing starters. The Knights must replace two of three linebacker starters and will have an entirely new secondary after graduating three seniors and seeing cornerback Jacoby Glenn, the 2014 AAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, declare early for the NFL Draft.

At cornerback, UCF does have several players who have been waiting in the wings, notably juniors Shaquill Griffin and D.J. Killings and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Kyle Gibson and Chris Williams, both of whom were among the most heralded signees of the 2014 recruiting class.

Coaches experimented with a mix of linebacker lineups during the spring, but there were always two constants: Chequan Burkett and Errol Clarke, who shared starting duties a season ago. Domenic Spencer, a senior who’s played a backup role his first three seasons, may get his chance to start.

The strength of the unit will be the defensive line, led by senior end Thomas Niles, who finished with a team-leading 7.5 sacks and 13.0 tackles for a loss in 2014. Coaches are confident in the middle with returning seniors Demetris Anderson and Lance McDowdell along with sophomore Jamiyus Pittman.

Previewing UCF’s Specialists for 2015


UCF will rely on redshirt freshman Matthew Wright to take over for Shawn Moffitt, perhaps the best kicker in program history. Wright was reliable during the spring and showed a strong leg.  Junior Caleb Houston is back at punter after averaging 38.9 yards on 54 punts. Return duties will be a battle that continues into the preseason. Akins has experience, and freshmen Chris Davis and Michael Rogers could factor into the mix.

Final Analysis  


Despite losing key players who helped the program clinch a share of its second consecutive American title in 2014, coach George O’Leary emphasizes that it’s a reload, not a rebuild. It’s hard to argue with O’Leary, who has averaged 9.4 wins over the past five seasons. Though there are question marks at certain positions, there’s an expectation that UCF has the talent to again be a contender for the conference title




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#62 Temple Owls

NATIONAL FORECAST

#62

American Athletic East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Matt Rhule, 8-16 (2 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Marcus Satterfield | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Snow

Matt Rhule clearly knows what he’s doing at Temple. The Owls enter the 2015 season a contender in the American Athletic Conference East Division with 17 starters back from a team that won just as many games as it lost. If Rhule can find balance on both sides of the ball, Temple could make some serious noise in the AAC.

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Previewing Temple’s Offense for 2015


When true freshman P.J. Walker became the quarterback midway through 2013, the future looked to be in capable hands. But despite a strong start to 2014, he finished the season with 13 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. In the last seven games, those numbers were four and 11, respectively. It was hardly coincidental that the Owls lost five of those games.

Part of the problem was the line, which had injuries and lacked depth. The status of tackle Dion Dawkins was uncertain in the spring due to an off-campus altercation, but he appears on track to return in the fall. In addition to Dawkins, four players return who started at least nine games, and the line is anchored by senior center Kyle Friend, a three-year starter. The addition of three first-year guys who sat out last year should help.

The Owls also never found a replacement for wideout Robbie Anderson, who averaged 18 yards a catch with nine TDs in 2013. The hope is that Hawaii transfer Keith Kirkwood and/or redshirt freshman Ventell Bryant can emerge to fill that role.

Nobody rushed for more than 384 yards, and Walker was the second-leading rusher. But there’s no shortage of candidates to address the running game. Zaire Williams, whose 533 yards two years ago were the third-most ever by a Temple freshman, barely played in 2014 because of a back injury. David Hood, who played in only two games as a freshman, also has potential, as do three new recruits — four-star T.J. Simmons, who turned down an offer from UCLA; Jager Gardner, who holds the Western North Carolina career high school rushing record (6,955 yards); and Ryquell Armstead, who has drawn comparisons to former Owl Bernard Pierce.


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

Previewing Temple’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

This unit had trouble stopping anyone in 2013, especially late in games, which became a contributing factor in three close losses. Things turned around in 2014 as the Owls tied for fourth in the nation in points allowed (17.5 ppg). They also forced 30 turnovers, 17 more than the year before. Six of those were returned for scores, which was only one fewer than the previous four seasons combined.

And 10 starters return. Tyler Matakevich should become the program’s all-time leading tackler. He’s reached 100 in each of his first three seasons, becoming only the third Owl to accomplish that feat. And his 355 career stops are by far the most of any active NCAA player.

Coach Matt Rhule has touted end Praise Martin-Oguike and tackle Matt Ioannidis as future pros. The secondary, which for way too long was an area of concern, has been significantly upgraded in the last couple of years.

The most pressing question now is depth at linebacker. Avery Williams is a former running back/defensive back, and Stephaun Marshall is a converted free safety who can back up at all three spots.
 

Previewing Temple’s Specialists for 2015


Freshman Austin Jones made 13-of-22 field goals and had at least one miss in each of the last five games. But seeing as the Owls made just three field goals in 2013 (two in the final game), that was a big improvement. First-year punter Alex Starzyk was inconsistent. The Owls ran a punt back for a touchdown and scored two other times on blocks. Rhule wants to see more from his kickoff returns.

Final Analysis  


The Owls went from two wins in 2013 to six a year ago. There is reason to believe they can at least get back to a bowl game for the first time in four seasons, and a run at the American Athletic Conference East Division crown is not out of the question. To take that next step, the offense must produce as it did in Rhule’s debut season of 2013, and Temple must find what it takes to win more close games against better opponents.




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