College Football

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.

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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. 

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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

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

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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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#41 Pittsburgh Panthers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#41

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Pat Narduzzi, First season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Chaney | DEF. COORDINATOR: Josh Conklin

Another year. Another coach for football. The Panthers got three full seasons out of Paul Chryst before he returned to Wisconsin, but that’s better than a stretch in 2010-12 when Pitt hired three head coaches and employed two interims in bowl games. It’s no wonder that has gone merely 6-6 in each of the last four regular seasons. Now, Pitt looks to Pat Narduzzi — Michigan State’s decorated defensive coordinator — to get the Panthers over the hump.

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Offense for 2015
 

As top-tier tandems go, James Conner and Tyler Boyd have few equals. Conner not only beat out defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston for ACC Player of the Year honors, but he was also named a first-team All-American after rushing for 1,765 yards (5.9 per carry) and an ACC-record 26 touchdowns. Boyd, meantime, became the first player in conference history to compile 1,000 receiving yards in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. The first-team All-ACC selection had 78 receptions for 1,261 yards (16.2 per catch). Conner is a legit Heisman candidate, Boyd a legit Biletnikoff Award contender. 

The question is: Can the two juniors provide enough firepower to an offense that features question marks at quarterback and on the offensive line? And can they help the program adjust to its fifth head coach in seven years? Former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi replaced Paul Chryst, who left for his alma mater, Wisconsin. “We’re here to lead this team,” Conner says. “We’re here to try to win a championship.”

Junior quarterback Chad Voytik is the X-factor. After a sluggish first half of last season, Voytik experienced a profound turnaround. He averaged nearly 200 yards and completed 64.5 percent of his passes as Pittsburgh averaged 35 points in its final six games. If he continues to evolve, the offense could flourish under new coordinator Jim Chaney, who mentored Drew Brees at Purdue and revitalized Arkansas’ offense last season.

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

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Defense for 2015
 

First-year coordinator Josh Conklin was known for his attacking style last season at Florida International. “We want our defenses to have an opportunistic mentality,” Narduzzi says. “Josh will help us achieve that.” 

Unlike the offense, the defense lacks star power. It lost its top two tacklers from last season and faces uncertainty across the board. Third-year starting middle linebacker Matt Galambos must pilot the unit during this transition phase. 

An intriguing prospect is outside linebacker Bam Bradley, whose name resembles his hitting style. He had 36 tackles, four tackles for a loss, two sacks and an interception. On the opposite side, senior Nicholas Grigsby (three sacks) will be relied upon to use his speed and explosiveness to induce more turnovers and big plays. 

Fourth-year starter Lafayette Pitts provides experience in the secondary, and safety Reggie Mitchell returns after leading the team with seven pass breakups.  At defensive end, sophomore Rori Blair (team-high five sacks) could be a linchpin for this newfangled attack-first unit.

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Previewing Pittsburgh’s Specialists for 2015
 

Kicker Chris Blewitt returns after converting 16-of-21 field goals (76 percent). Sophomore punter Ryan Winslow averaged 40.1 yards on 50 punts. Boyd ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the ACC in kickoff and punt returns, respectively. 

Final Analysis 
 

Seven years. Five coaches. Zero continuity. That is the storyline for , which hired Narduzzi in December. The situation is confounding and maddening to a fan base that’s been witness to a program mired in mediocrity. Whether Narduzzi can provide stability is unclear, but the former Michigan State defensive coordinator offers a snappy résumé as a career assistant. Under Narduzzi, Michigan State was the only school in the FBS to rank in the top 10 in total and rushing defense the past four seasons. He inherits a Panthers team that was the youngest in the nation with 81 underclassmen (53 freshmen and 28 sophomores). Fifteen starters return. 

Pittsburgh features game-changers in Conner and Boyd, but a transition to a new coaching staff — again — and uncertainty at quarterback and on defense will surely create challenges.

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