College Football

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 first season in the league, fans in the still don’t know what to make of the . 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


has had a revolving door for offensive coordinators, but the 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 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 . 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

, 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 defense ranking near the bottom of every meaningful statistic in the 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 first season in the league, fans in the still don’t know what to make of the . 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.


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Previewing Rutgers’ Specialists for 2015


The 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 teams in net punting. Gleeson holds a slight edge in the competition heading into training camp.

Final Analysis

No one expected life in the to be easy for , 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.   

The Debate

Is Leonte Carroo the Best WR in the Big Ten?

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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 . 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 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:

Previewing UCF’s Defense for 2015

, 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 , 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




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 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 .

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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:

Previewing Temple’s Defense for 2015

, 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 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.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#64 Illinois Fighting Illini

NATIONAL FORECAST

#64

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Tim Beckman , 12-25 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill Cubit | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tim Banks, Mike Phair

Tim Beckman’s teams have improved every year he’s been at . But an offseason fraught with negative headlines and a very difficult schedule have raised questions about his long-term future with the . A critical fourth season could go either direction for a team that has underachieved for the better part of a decade.

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Previewing Illinois’ Offense for 2015


It was supposed to be a smooth transition from four-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase to Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. It didn’t turn out that way. When Lunt was healthy in 2014, he was effective. But injuries forced him to miss five games. offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is happy to have Lunt back for his junior season. Lunt is in his third year working with Cubit at . He completed 64 percent of his passes in 2014 with 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.

“Physically, he looks better,” Cubit says. “He looks better in the pocket. He’s going to have to be real good for us to be good.”

Ask Cubit what is the strength of the offense, and he will quickly answer with a name: Josh Ferguson. The senior gained 735 yards and scored eight touchdowns on the ground in 2014. He had another 427 yards and two scores as a receiver.

Cubit’s job became more difficult on April 8. That’s when Mike Dudek, one of the top returning receivers in the , suffered a torn ACL during a morning workout. He will be out until at least midseason. Geronimo Allison returns after finishing third on the team in 2014 with 41 catches. Cubit will need him to be a bigger part of the offense. He’ll need the same from sophomore Malik Turner.

Up front, depth is a big concern. Guard Ted Karras, the top returnee in 2015, missed the spring while recovering from surgery. He will be ready for training camp. The starting tackles appear set with Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt.

Previewing Illinois’ Defense for 2015

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

It has been awhile since had heated battles for starting spots at end and tackle. Back to the Ron Zook era. “Now we do,” coach Tim Beckman says. Senior end Jihad Ward is the best of an improving group. He is the leading returner in sacks (three) and tackles for a loss (8.5). Bad news for the : Ward is better. Tackle Teko Powell is being counted on to anchor the middle. He missed the spring because of injury but is expected back.

The linebackers are growing up — in a good way. Having Mason Monheim back makes it easier for the coaches to sleep at night. T.J. Neal starts at middle linebacker. The Star position, a hybrid linebacker/safety, will be a training camp battle between James Crawford and Eric Finney.

V’Angelo Bentley returns at cornerback along with steady Eaton Spence. Taylor Barton is back at safety after finishing third on the team in tackles in 2014. Clayton Fejedelem made a late move in 2014 and will start at the other safety spot.


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Previewing Illinois’ Specialists for 2015


Coordinator Alex Golesh is looking for consistency on field goals. David Reisner and Taylor Zalewski split the duties in 2014 with mediocre results. They missed 8-of-17 field-goal tries. The team has huge shoes to fill at punter after the graduation of Justin DuVernois, who averaged 44 yards per attempt. Ryan Frain and Reisner will compete for the starting punting position.  

Final Analysis

It is a simple question with a complicated answer: What does Beckman need to do to continue as football coach? The coach enters his fourth season with a 12–25 overall record and a 4–20 mark in the . No doubt the team has improved during Beckman’s tenure. But the bar was set low with a 2–10 mark his first year. The Illini won four in 2013 and six in 2014. The fans demand more.

The schedule doesn’t help. The travel to North Carolina and Iowa, while hosting powerhouses Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Another bowl bid is doable, and six wins should keep Beckman at the school for at least another season. 

The Debate

Where Does Wes Lunt Rank Among Big Ten QBs?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#61 Virginia Cavaliers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#61

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Mike London, 23-38 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Fairchild | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jon Tenuta

Mike London enters his sixth season at squarely on the hot seat for the third consecutive season. The showed improvement last year, winning four of their first six games but struggled badly in play over the second half of the season. In a wide-open , a postseason berth for Virginia and London may be the only thing that saves his job.

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Previewing Virginia’s Offense for 2015
 

has settled on an identity and style of play. And now, the can settle on a quarterback. Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns were competing through the spring. Lambert started nine games a year ago but wasn’t able to separate himself from Johns, who started three games when Lambert was hurt and played in all 12. Lambert decided to transfer in May, leaving Johns as the clear No. 1 quarterback this season. At 6'5", Johns is a tall-in-the-saddle type seemingly suited for a pro-style offense that seeks to emphasize the running game. Johns needs to be more accurate and less mistake-prone than a year ago, when the two Virginia quarterbacks combined for 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

ranked 97th nationally in rushing offense in 2014. Hopes of being a power-running team rest on an offensive line that was banged up last year and did a good job in pass protection but struggled to open holes on the ground. The upside is that 10 players with game experience are back, including seven who have been starters at some point.

The graduation of tailback Kevin Parks creates an opportunity for former five-star recruit Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, a potentially dynamic player who has shown only flashes of that talent in two seasons. If the Cavaliers can establish the running game, they feel good about their chances of taking shots down field, with an experienced corps of receivers that includes senior Canaan Severin, and North Carolina transfer T.J. Thorpe.

Previewing Virginia’s Defense for 2015

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

A big chunk of Virginia’s pass rush left early for the NFL. Junior defensive end Eli Harold and sophomore linebacker Max Valles, who combined for 16 sacks and 27 tackles for a loss, are both gone, as is senior linebacker Henry Coley and his eight sacks.

Given those losses, it’s difficult to envision the being as disruptive again, even in a scheme designed to create havoc with blitzes and stunts.

The strength of the unit should be on the back end, where safety Quin Blanding, a Freshman All-American, should only get better, and where the return of cornerback Demetrious Nicholson from a turf toe injury adds to an already deep secondary.

Up front, tackle David Dean anchors a group that ranked 18th nationally against the run. Though not the speed rusher that Harold was, end Mike Moore had three sacks and will be counted on to bring heat from the edge. After an injury-plagued freshman year, former five-star recruit Andrew Brown is being counted on for a breakout season at tackle.

The linebacking corps must replace three starters, meaning the heart of the defense will be young. Expect a true freshman or two on the two-deep.


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Previewing Virginia’s Specialists for 2015


Given inability to finish in the red zone, kicker Ian Frye was busy last year, hitting 22-of-27 field-goal attempts. Punter Alec Vozenilek was a valuable weapon and will be missed. Thorpe, the North Carolina transfer, is a former returner who could bring some needed sizzle to the return game. 

Final Analysis

Coach Mike London is no stranger to the hot seat. He’s been under a cloud for three seasons. Last year’s improvement from 2–10 to 5–7 was encouraging to a point. But a second-half fade after a 4–2 start raised old questions about the team’s inability to finish close games under London.

Last year’s progress earned London a last chance. Nothing short of a bowl game appearance is likely to keep him around. With the usual questions on offense and big shoes to fill on defense — as well as another brutal non-conference schedule — has a lot to overcome for that to happen. Too much, probably. 

The Debate

Is Taquan Mizzell Primed for a Breakout Season?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#80 Northern Illinois Huskies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#80

MAC West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Rod Carey, 23-6 (2+ years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bob Cole | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jay Niemann

reigned supreme in the MAC in 2014, although a blowout loss to Marshall in the Boca Raton Bowl ended last season on a disappointing note. The path to the MAC West division crown figures to go through the Huskies once again this fall, as Rod Carey's team returns 14 starters from a team that is used to winning. Northern Illinois is in search of its sixth straight division crown and its fourth MAC championship in the past five years.

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Previewing Northern Illinois’ Offense for 2015

 

has remained one of the best offensive units in the MAC through several coaching changes over the last decade. The offense should keep on piling up points and yardage in 2015, but it will have a slightly different look.

Unlike last season, there won’t be any uncertainty at quarterback. Drew Hare won a three-player competition with his performance in the second half of a win at Northwestern in Week 2. Hare doesn’t possess the running ability of past stars Jordan Lynch or Chandler Harnish, but he completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and threw 18 touchdowns with just two interceptions.

“He’s a completely different quarterback,” NIU coach Rod Carey says. “He has the confidence of knowing he’s the quarterback.”

The offense should be more pass-heavy because of the athleticism and depth at wide receiver. Senior Tommylee Lewis, who had 86 receptions in 2013, is back after missing most of last season with a toe injury. Senior Juwan Brescacin is a big-play threat, junior Chad Beebe is a solid possession receiver and North Dakota transfer Kenny Golladay’s size makes him an instant red-zone threat.

The Huskies’ success on offense usually hinges on their ability to run the ball and the development of the line. They finished 16th in the country in rushing offense last season, averaging 249.1 yards per game, but they must replace running backs Cameron Stingily and Akeem Daniels. Northern Illinois will employ a committee approach, with Keith Harris Jr., Joel Bouagnon, Draco Smith and Jordan Huff splitting carries early in the season.

Questions surround the offensive line as center Andrew Ness and left guard Aidan Conlon are the lone returning starters.  Right guard Josh Ruka, right tackle Lincoln Howard and left tackle Levon Myers all gained valuable experience as reserves last season.

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Previewing Northern Illinois’ Defense for 2015

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

While eight starters return from a unit that finished 51st in the country in scoring defense, the must replace defensive end Jason Meehan and free safety Dechane Durante, although the core of a defense that forced 24 takeaways and registered 32 sacks last season is mostly back. Up front, the Huskies need defensive ends Cameron Clinton-Earl and Perez Ford to apply pressure. Rasheen Lemon, the second-leading tackler last season, headlines a solid group of linebackers.

The secondary is a position of strength, with three starters back from a unit that picked off the majority of the 14 interceptions last season. Strong safety Marlon Moore, who led the Huskies with 99 tackles, is the anchor, and all-conference cornerback Paris Logan is a proven defender.

Previewing Northern Illinois’ Specialists for 2015

 

Kicker Christian Hagan emerged late last season to become a reliable option. Redshirt freshman punter Peter Deppe is the leading candidate to take over for Tyler Wedel. The return game could use an upgrade after finishing 91st on kickoff returns and 74th on punt returns.

Final Analysis

 

Despite the ’ loss of most of their playmakers on offense and top sack specialist, the road to the MAC West title still goes through Northern Illinois. The offense has the potential to be formidable again with a solid group of running backs, an explosive corps of receivers and Hare benefiting from a full offseason as the starting quarterback. Defensively, the Huskies are solid in the secondary with a few spots to fill at linebacker and along the defensive line.

The Huskies have lost three straight bowl games, including a 52–23 blowout loss to Marshall in the Boca Raton Bowl last season. Carey is not shying away from using that as motivation. The conference schedule is favorable for a run at a sixth straight West title and fourth conference championship in five years.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#79 Vanderbilt Commodores

NATIONAL FORECAST

#79

SEC East PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Derek Mason, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Andy Ludwig | DEF. COORDINATOR: Derek Mason

Derek Mason's tenure at got off to a rough start, as the Commodores won just three games overall and went 0-8 in the last season. With a year under his belt and some coaching staff changes, Mason is hoping for more success in Year 2, but the life in the SEC is never easy, especially for an offense that was among the worst in the nation in 2014.

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Previewing Vanderbilt’s Offense for 2015

 

’s offensive issues were well chronicled throughout the 2014 season. The Commodores ranked last in the in both total offense and scoring offense by a wide margin and ranked in the bottom 10 in the nation in both categories as well. Perhaps the most troubling stat? The fact that Vanderbilt scored only nine offensive touchdowns in its eight SEC games.

Coach Derek Mason addressed the offensive issues shortly after the season by firing Karl Dorrell and hiring Andy Ludwig to run the Commodores’ attack. Ludwig’s first order of business is to identify a quarterback between holdovers Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck. Both started multiple games last year; neither played well enough to stake a claim as the no-doubt-about-it starter entering 2015.

The Commodores are thin at tailback but are in good shape at the top of the depth chart. Ralph Webb, who rushed for 912 yards as a redshirt freshman, impressed Ludwig during the spring. C.J. Duncan, a former high school quarterback, headlines a talented young corps of wide receivers. Keep an eye on sophomore Trent Sherfield and redshirt freshman Ronald Monroe. Tight end Steven Scheu, the team’s top pass-catcher in 2014, suffered a broken leg in the spring. His return for Week 1 is in doubt.

A veteran offensive line was expected to be a team strength in 2014. That, however, was not the case. There were other issues, of course, but the Commodores averaged a league-worst 3.4 yards per carry and struggled to protect the quarterbacks. Mason is confident that this group, which returns four starters, can rebound.

Related:
 

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Defense for 2015

  which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

About a month after he fired defensive coordinator David Kotulski, Mason named himself as the ’ new defensive coordinator. “I am loving it,” he said during the spring. “I don’t know why I ever gave it up. Probably best decision I have made is to come back and run the defense.”

The defensive line is home to three of the most talented players on the roster — ends/tackles Adam Butler and Caleb Azubike and nose guard Nifae Lealao — but this unit is still a work in progress.

Stephen Weatherly proved to be an ideal fit as pass-rushing outside linebacker in the new scheme, leading the team in both tackles for a loss (12.5) and sacks (4.5). Inside linebacker Nigel Bowden was as good as advertised as a redshirt freshman, leading the team with 78 tackles despite battling various injuries. Josh Smith, the prize of the 2015 recruiting class, is considered a natural inside linebacker but might have an easier time finding early playing time on the outside.

The Commodores struggled in pass defense — allowing a league-high 7.6 yards per attempt and intercepting only six passes — due in part to inconsistent play from the cornerback position. Junior Torren McGaster is entrenched as one of the starters, but the other spot is wide open. 

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Specialists for 2015

 

Kicker Tommy Openshaw was solid in his first season, hitting 8-of-11, including all six from under 40 yards. Colby Cooke averaged 42.4 yards per punt, but the Commodores ranked last in the and 86th nationally in net punting with a 36.2-yard average.

Final Analysis

 

It’s difficult to put a positive spin on Mason’s first year as a head coach. Coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons, slumped to 3–9 overall and failed to win a game in the . Mason’s second Vanderbilt team should be improved, thanks in part to more experience on both sides of the ball and upgrades on the coaching staff. But the Commodores will have to be drastically better, especially on offense, to make a move in the SEC East, where seemingly every program — with the possible exception of South Carolina — is on the uptick.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#77 Georgia Southern Eagles

NATIONAL FORECAST

#77

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Willie Fritz, 9-3 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Doug Ruse | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jack Curtis

Georgia Southern made the transition to the FCS level with ease, winning nine games and claiming the Sun Belt title with a 8-0 record. The Eagles were ineligible for the postseason last season, but that's not the case for Willie Fritz' team in 2015. The Sun Belt's top scoring offense and defense returns 10 starters, as Georgia Southern's productive triple-option attack (381.1 rushing ypg) looks to prove that 2014 was no fluke.

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Previewing Georgia Southern’s Offense for 2015
 

Georgia Southern threw more often and more effectively in Willie Fritz’s first season as head coach, incorporating some spread principles he brought from Sam Houston State into the more traditional triple-option the Eagles ran so effectively at the FCS level. But Fritz believes there’s even more room for the passing game to grow in 2015 while maintaining dominance in the rushing attack, which generated 381.1 yards per game.

“We led the nation in rushing, but we were subpar as far as throwing the ball,” Fritz said. “That’s a point of emphasis for us.”

Having a second year in Fritz’s system should benefit junior quarterbacks Kevin Ellison, who ran for 1,096 yards, and Favian Upshaw, who played well when Ellison was sidelined with minor injuries. Junior running back Matt Breida also returns after averaging 8.7 yards per carry.

An overhaul on the offensive line, however, raises some questions. The Eagles return a potential all-conference anchor at left guard in Darien Foreman and added UAB transfer Roscoe Byrd at right guard. But they will have to replace five seniors who made their rushing success possible. Fritz is counting on newcomers and sophomores who played backup snaps last year to be more adept at pass protection, but he acknowledges that some offensive line positions won’t be won until fall camp. 

Related:
 

Previewing Georgia Southern’s Defense for 2015

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Georgia Southern led the Sun Belt in scoring defense (23.4 ppg) and was third in total defense (388.1 ypg), but Fritz wants the Eagles to generate more turnovers (20 last season).

“This will be my 23rd year as a head coach, and when we’ve been plus-1 or better in turnovers, we’ve won 91 percent of our games,” Fritz said.

With 16 contributors returning from last season, the Eagles have enough depth to take another step defensively. They will, however, undoubtedly miss middle linebacker Edwin Jackson, who accounted for 100 total tackles, and four-year starter Deion Stanley at safety/nickel back.

Senior Deshawntee Gallon, who moves from a backup to starting role, and senior Antwione Williams should give the Eagles one of the league’s better linebacking corps. They’ll work behind a defensive line that returns nine contributors and its two most productive players in end Bernard Dawson and nose tackle Jay Ellison.

Georgia Southern gave up 234.4 passing yards per game last year and will need to play better on the back end, which is why Fritz signed a slew of defensive backs.

Previewing Georgia Southern’s Specialists for 2015
 

In an otherwise great year, this was a sore spot. Primary kicker Alex Hanks missed seven extra points and made just one of his last four field goals after starting 9-of-10. If his accuracy doesn’t improve, the Eagles may look to junior Younghoe Koo, who made five field goals in 2013 but none last season. There’s also room for improvement in the punting game. 

Final Analysis
 

Georgia Southern’s first year as an FBS member could hardly have gone better, as the Eagles went 8–0 in the Sun Belt and came within a couple plays of knocking off NC State and Georgia Tech. Don’t count on the Eagles getting complacent either, as NCAA rules governing FCS-to-FBS transitions prevented them from playing in a bowl game.

“We deserved a chance to go,” Foreman says. “We felt like it wasn’t fair, but that’s a big motivation for us this offseason.” Georgia Southern should only get more potent as Fritz molds and recruits players who fit his offense. If the defense plays at the same level or improves, the Eagles could easily repeat as conference champs. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#76 Arkansas State Red Wolves

NATIONAL FORECAST

#76

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Blake Anderson, 7-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Walt Bell, Glen Elarbee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Joe Cauthen

Blake Anderson maintained 's streak of winning seasons and bowl berths in his first year at the helm. The Red Wolves went 7-6 under their rookie head coach, stretching both their string of winning seasons and bowl appearances (all of them to the GoDaddy Bowl) to four. Anderson has his sights set even higher in 2015, as Arkansas State enters the season the favorites in the Sun Belt on the strength of an offense that returns nine starters.

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Previewing Arkansas State’s Offense for 2015
 

Senior quarterback Fredi Knighten and eight other starters return after setting records for points and total offense in their first season in Blake Anderson’s fast-paced system. Speed makes Knighten dangerous on the move, and he was an accurate passer in his first year as a starter, completing 62 percent of his attempts and accounting for 4,000-plus yards of total offense.

Injuries cost senior running back Michael Gordon two games last season, yet he finished with 1,100 yards while averaging 6.9 yards per carry. Sophomore Johnston White was dependable in a backup role, but the Red Wolves missed Gordon’s big-play ability when he was out. A freshman will have an opportunity to play his way into the rotation.

The top six receivers return, led by Tres Houston, J.D. McKissic and Dijon Paschal. One of the Sun Belt’s most dynamic players, McKissic was hampered by injuries last fall after catching 185 passes in his first two seasons. Houston and Paschal are tall targets on the perimeter, while 6'5" tight end Darion Griswold provides versatility at his position.

The Red Wolves spent spring practice shuffling their offensive line, especially at the interior positions. ASU didn’t run the ball effectively enough in short-yardage or goal-line situations to suit Anderson, who stressed a more physical approach in the spring.

Related:
 

Previewing Arkansas State’s Defense for 2015

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ASU’s defensive line deficiencies were exposed in the second half of the season. Opponents scored 28 rushing touchdowns over the final seven games, including seven by Toledo in the GoDaddy Bowl, while averaging 283 rushing yards during that span. The are counting on transfers Robert Mondie, Waylon Roberson and Jake Swalley to help sophomore Chuks Ota shore up the interior line. Mondie joined his brother Devin, a starting offensive lineman, at ASU when UAB dropped football. Roberson and Swalley are junior college transfers who also moved up the depth chart quickly in the spring. ASU has proven talent at end with senior Chris Stone and sophomore Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, who combined for 15.5 sacks last season.

Xavier Woodson, the Red Wolves’ second-leading tackler last year with 95, moves into a leadership role at linebacker with the departure of All-Sun Belt linebacker Qushaun Lee.

While the secondary suffered significant losses, the Red Wolves return two safeties (Chris Humes and Charleston Girley) who were starters before suffering injuries early last season. Rocky Hayes could be among the league’s best cornerbacks, and junior college transfers Cody Brown and Allen Sentimore will contribute at safety.

Previewing Arkansas State’s Specialists for 2015
 

Extra points and field goals were an adventure for the Red Wolves, who missed eight PATs and made only 61 percent of their field-goal attempts. Luke Ferguson (8-of-15 last season) and several newcomers will compete for the job in the fall. Ferguson was more consistent as a punter, averaging 41 yards while placing 22 punts inside the 20-yard line. Blaise Taylor took over on punt returns as a true freshman, averaging 8.1 yards, and is one of several possibilities on kickoff returns.

Final Analysis 
 

The ’ depth chart started to show the effects of four coaching changes in four seasons last fall. ASU was critically thin in key areas, starting with the defensive line, before a rash of season-ending injuries made matters worse. Still, there was enough talent on hand to pull out seven victories and make a fourth straight bowl trip. Anderson’s second season starts with a difficult non-conference schedule, but ASU won’t face defending Sun Belt champion Georgia Southern in conference play. While the Red Wolves should put up plenty of points, they will have to improve defensively to maximize their potential.




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