College Football

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#31 Utah Utes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#31

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Kyle Whittingham, 85-43 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Aaron Roderick, Jim Harding | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Pease

should be feeling pretty good for 2015. The Utes are coming off their best season as member, winning nine games for the first time since 2010 and finishing with a winning conference record for the first time since moving over from the Mountain West. Yet Utah has reason for concern as defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen both left in arguably lateral moves. The defense is the question for the short term, but the long term question is if Utah will be able to continue the momentum that began in 2014.

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Previewing Utah’s Offense for 2015 
 

quarterback Travis Wilson’s career was in question after the 2013 season due to an intracranial condition, but he was cleared to play and earned the starting job in 2014. Wilson’s up-and-down performance led to Kendal Thompson replacing him as the starter twice during the season, before Thompson’s knee injury enabled Wilson to regain the position through the Utes’ Las Vegas Bowl victory over Colorado State. 

Wilson succeeded in cutting down his interceptions from 16 as a sophomore to five as a junior, but he never seemed comfortable with former offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who’s now Texas A&M’s offensive line coach. Aaron Roderick, promoted as Utah’s co-offensive coordinator, wants Wilson to complete a higher percentage of passes. “We’re not trying to reinvent what we were doing. We just want to get better at it,” Roderick says.

Running back Devontae Booker was a big discovery for the Utes in 2014 as a junior college transfer. Once he established himself as the featured back, he became a consistent force in the , averaging 130.1 yards in conference games. Booker is a tough inside runner with explosive speed, and his 1,512-yard total fell just short of the school’s single-season record. 

Utah will rely heavily on senior receiver Kenneth Scott, who led the team with 48 catches and four touchdowns, including a game-winning reception in overtime at Stanford. 

The Utes took a hit when tackle Jeremiah Poutasi entered the NFL Draft as a junior, but they return the bulk of a line that improved in position coach Jim Harding’s first season and paved the way for Booker’s big year. Left guard Isaac Asiata and center Siaosi Aiono are returning starters who played consistently.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Utah’s Defense for 2015
 

Utah must replace end Nate Orchard, who recorded 18.5 sacks. John Pease, the Utes’ new defensive coordinator, hopes that end Hunter Dimick will at least match his 10 sacks from last year, even though he will receive more attention now. 

Utah’s linebackers were hit with injuries last season, but the coaches pieced things together well enough for the Utes to rank second in the Pac-12 in total defense, allowing 393.5 yards per game.  Jared Norris is the group’s most productive player, capable of covering receivers and making big hits in the running game. Norris made a team-high 116 tackles, including 13 for a loss. 

The cornerback position is a concern for Pease after Dominique Hatfield was dismissed in July. Converted quarterback Jason Thompson was a surprise in the spring, competing at safety with Marcus Williams. 

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Previewing Utah’s Specialists for 2015
 

Utah wants to move the ball and score touchdowns, but punting and kicking field goals are the team’s biggest strengths. Australian punter Tom Hackett averaged 46.7 yards, and 36 of his 80 punts went inside the 20-yard line. Andy Phillips missed a field goal in an overtime loss at Arizona State, but he was otherwise dependable, finishing 23-of-28 for the season, including 12-of-15 from 40 yards or longer.

Final Analysis 
 

Utah is getting closer. In their fourth season of membership, the Utes posted their first winning record (5–4) in conference play and competed favorably against nearly every opponent.  Coach Kyle Whittingham likes the program’s trajectory entering its fifth season in the Pac-12. “We’ve taken a step forward every year with our depth and talent on the roster, one through 85,” he says. “It’s still a work in progress … but we feel like last year we made a lot of headway.”

In 2015, the Utes hope to overcome a lack of experience at receiver and in the secondary while counting on their senior quarterback to play more consistently as he completes an adventurous career.

The Debate

Is Devontae Booker the Pac-12's Best Running Back?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#39 NC State Wolfpack

NATIONAL FORECAST

#39

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Dave Doeren, 11-14 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Canada | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Huxtable

flashed its potential in a wild 56-41 loss to Florida State on Sept. 27. The Wolfpack just had to wait until November to deliver on it. NC State was one of the first teams of 2014 to give FSU a scare last season, leading the Seminoles until the final 3:24 of the third quarter. NC State struggled after that game, losing four in a row at one point. After regrouping in the final five games, the Wolfpack though won more games after Nov. 1 — finishing 4-1 — than it won all of 2013. After improving from 3-9 to 8-5 in Dave Doeren’s second season, NC State has reason to believe the momentum can continue.

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Previewing NC State’s Offense for 2015
 

NC State couldn’t have asked for much more from quarterback Jacoby Brissett last year. The Florida transfer threw for 2,606 yards, ran for 529 more, had a total of 26 touchdowns and threw only five interceptions. Multiple times during the season, coach Dave Doeren cited Brissett as the main reason for the team’s improvement from 3–9 to 8–5. This year, the Wolfpack will want a little more consistency from the senior, who finished the 2014 season with a flourish after a midseason slump. 

The running game, which averaged 204.5 yards per game last season (the program’s best since 1992), is in great shape with the return of running backs Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes. Three highly touted recruits — Johnny Frasier, Reggie Gallaspy and Nyheim Hines — join the rotation and have the type of talent to make an immediate impact.

Hines might have more of a role as a pass catcher and in jet sweep packages. The Wolfpack are thin at receiver, but senior tight end David J. Grinnage has developed into a reliable red zone target. Two new starting tackles will have to get acclimated on the offensive line, which is a major concern.

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

Previewing NC State’s Defense for 2015
 

Doeren and defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable had hoped to establish NC State’s base defense and win without a high volume of blitzes. After seven games, they changed their strategy, and the defense responded with its best performances of the season.

Defensive end Mike Rose and defensive tackles Justin Jones, B.J. Hill, Kenton Gibbs and Monty Nelson all got valuable reps last season and will help offset the loss of seniors T.Y. McGill, Thomas Teal and Art Norman. Sophomore Kentavius Street, the prize of his recruiting class in 2014, will get more snaps inside this season, while sophomore Bradley Chubb has been moved from linebacker to end.

Linebacker was a question mark heading into last season, especially after expected starter M.J. Salahuddin tore ligaments in his left knee in August and missed the whole season. But sophomores Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore found their legs, especially after Huxtable loosened up the defense and used more blitzing schemes after an early October loss to Boston College.

All five starters return in the defensive backfield, led by senior free safety Hakim Jones, who had a team-best 80 tackles, and junior cornerback Jack Tocho, who is the team’s best defender in pass coverage.

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Previewing NC State’s Specialists for 2015
 

The Wolfpack have to start over at all specialist positions after having the same kicker-punter-long snapper trio for four straight years. Freshman Kyle Bambard has to replace Niklas Sade, the school’s all-time leading scorer, at kicker. Bambard and freshman punter A.J. Cole both enrolled in January. The return game did not have much punch last year, but Doeren is excited about the potential of redshirt freshman receiver Maurice Trowell to return kickoffs and for Hines to help with punt returns.

Final Analysis 
 

improved its win total by five games from 2013 to ’14. The Wolfpack hope to make another jump in 2015 with a veteran quarterback and seven starters back on defense. Another five-game improvement might be asking too much, but Doeren won’t put a ceiling on the program’s progress.

The key to moving the momentum forward again will be replacing main parts up front on both sides of the ball. But with the return of Brissett and a host of new talented recruits supplementing an already deep backfield, the Wolfpack have an opportunity to at least push Atlantic Division powers Florida State and Clemson.

The Debate

Where Does Jacoby Brissett Rank Among ACC QBs?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#38 Louisville Cardinals

NATIONAL FORECAST

#38

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Bobby Petrino, 50-13 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Garrick McGee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Grantham

has had more high-profile seasons than 2014, but the Cardinals deserve credit for a successful first season in the ACC. Louisville moved into a tougher conference and had a revolving door at quarterback, yet still found a way to win nine games, including a road trip to Notre Dame. The Cards did this with a top-10 defense and 10 NFL draft picks. Louisville is in Year 2 under Bobby Petrino and in the ACC, but the challenge may be more steep than it was a year ago.

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Previewing Louisville’s Offense in 2015
 

Bobby Petrino isn’t much closer to settling on a quarterback than he was before the 2014 season. Arguments can be made for Reggie Bonnafon (the best runner), Kyle Bolin (he beat Kentucky), Will Gardner (if he can get healthy) or Tyler Ferguson (solid spring). Most favor Bonnafon because of his athleticism and youth, but the Cardinals could feature the same revolving door as last season. 

Louisville lost three top receivers, so expect the Cards to run the ball early with Brandon Radcliff, who averaged 97 yards in the final three games against Notre Dame, Kentucky and Georgia. L.J. Scott and Jeremy Smith are solid backups. The coaches are also intrigued by Malin Jones, a transfer from Northwestern.

Who’s going to catch the football? The Cards are waiting for junior James Quick to fulfill the five-star hype he earned in high school. Quick struggled with drops and off-the-field issues last season. Two transfers must deliver at wide receiver — Ja’Quay Savage (Texas A&M) and Jamari Staples, who caught 31 passes for 458 yards and four scores at UAB last year. Tight end Keith Towbridge should blossom after splitting time with the departed Gerald Christian.

The offensive line needs work and experience after losing three starters. Center Tobijah Hughley is a former walk-on who earned a scholarship and a starting spot last season. Aaron Epps, a formidable run blocker, returns to anchor the right side. This could be a trouble spot in early games with Auburn and Clemson.

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

Previewing Louisville’s Defense in 2015
 

Petrino surprised by winning with defense last season, but the unit, which ranked in the top five nationally in total defense and scoring defense until melting down in the final two games, must replace seven starters.

The front seven remains formidable. Defensive ends Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei are solid run stoppers who can also pursue the quarterback. DeAngelo Brown is a 320-pound roadblock in the middle. The Cards added Devonte Fields, a former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year while at TCU who played in junior college last year. He could have a huge impact.

Linebackers James Burgess, Keith Kelsey and Keith Brown were among the highest-rated recruits signed by the previous staff. They’re experienced and can make plays. Expect Henry Famurewa or Finesse Middleton to step in at weak-side linebacker.

You’ll need a program to identify the secondary, but Petrino is not as concerned as most coaches would be. Why? Two replacements are safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and cornerback Shaq Wiggins, who practiced with Louisville last season after they were dismissed at Georgia. Harvey-Clemons is a possible first-round pick in 2016. Cornelius Sturghill, a redshirt freshman, should move into the other corner spot. Chucky Williams will battle Zykiesis Cannon at the other safety.

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Previewing Louisville’s Specialists in 2015
 

Senior placekicker John Wallace needs 10 field goals to become the school’s all-time leader. Josh Appleby becomes the punter after three seasons as the backup. The return game didn’t give Louisville an edge last season. Petrino hopes that Staples (punts) and Williams (kickoffs) will fix that.

Final Analysis
 

Louisville has lost considerable talent and undergone a coaching staff change over the last two seasons. Those are warning signs the program could take a step back in 2015, especially with a schedule that includes Auburn and Clemson in two of the first three games. The Cardinals need a quarterback to emerge, receivers to step forward, three new offensive linemen to step up and a rebuilt secondary to deliver to keep winning big. That’s a lot to ask.

The Debate

Is Bobby Petrino the Best Coach in the ACC?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#40 Cincinnati Bearcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#40

American Athletic PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Tommy Tuberville, 18-8 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eddie Gran | DEF. COORDINATOR: Steve Clinkscale

enters its third season under coach Tommy Tuberville as the favorite to win the . The Bearcats return an explosive offense, headlined by quarterback Gunner Kiel and a deep receiving corps. However, question marks remain on defense.

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Previewing Cincinnati’s Offense for 2015
 

Quarterback Gunner Kiel came out firing in the 2014 opener with six touchdown passes in his collegiate debut. Kiel, a former No. 1 quarterback recruit who began his career at Notre Dame, finished with 31 TD passes to tie the single-season record, and his top seven receivers return. One question is durability. Kiel, now a junior, made all 13 starts last season, but he left several games with rib and/or back injuries. The UC training staff has worked with Kiel to improve his core strength.

Possession receiver Shaq Washington (66 catches, four TDs) is on pace to become the UC career leader in receptions. Mekale McKay and Chris Moore (eight TD catches apiece) are the deep threats in UC’s four-wideout offense.

UC ranked 13th nationally in passing offense but only 72nd in rushing, and the preseason focus is to improve the run game. One problem was that top backs Hosey Williams and Tion Green missed most of 2014 with injuries. Mike Boone led the club with 650 yards rushing and nine TDs as a true freshman. Boone and Williams will battle for the No 1 job in preseason camp.

The line loses three-time all-league left tackle Eric Lefeld. Three starters return: Parker Ehinger (moving from right guard to left tackle), right tackle Justin Murray and center Deyshawn Bond.

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Previewing Cincinnati’s Defense for 2015

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

A 55–34 midseason thrashing by the Miami Hurricanes left the Bearcats dead last nationally in total defense, leading coach Tommy Tuberville to say: “We can’t tackle anybody on defense. We look like the Bad News Bears.” Two weeks before that, UC had allowed 710 yards in a 50–28 loss to Ohio State. The schedule lightened up in the second half of the season, and the Bearcats gradually rose to No. 96 in total defense. But UC’s relative lack of defensive speed has been exposed by Power 5 schools.

Key losses include linebackers Jeff Luc (134 tackles) and Nick Temple (113) and defensive end Terrell Hartsfield (AAC-best 9.0 sacks). Defensive end Silverberry Mouhon is the top returnee among the front seven.

Ball-hawking safety Zach Edwards (121 tackles) is back, and the secondary should benefit from the return of veteran cornerback Adrian Witty. A vocal team leader, Witty missed most of 2014 with a leg injury.

UC has its third defensive coordinator in three seasons under Tuberville, with Steve Clinkscale promoted from secondary/cornerbacks coach. Last year’s coordinator, Hank Hughes, left to become defensive line coach at Nebraska.

Previewing Cincinnati’s Specialists for 2015
 

The special teams also will have their third coordinator in Tuberville’s third UC season as Ty Linder joins the staff from TCU. Placekicker Andrew Gantz returns after a solid debut season that saw him earn second-team All-AAC honors after making 16-of-20 field goal attempts. Punter Sam Geraci also made his UC debut last year and improved as the season progressed, finishing with a 39.4-yard average. The coverage teams were better after a dreadful 2013 season, but UC again produced little in the return game.

Final Analysis 
 

After two consecutive 9–4 seasons and two bowl losses under Tuberville, some believe UC is running in place. The Bearcats did share the AAC title last year, but they lack a signature win in Tuberville’s brief tenure. Tuberville turns 61 in September, and he has not had a team finish in the final AP top 25 since 2007 (Auburn). The 2014 Bearcats don’t look like a top 25 team, either, but they should be considered the favorite in the East Division of the expanded . There are some issues on defense, but the offense, led by Kiel, will put UC in position to win eight or nine games once again. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#26 Florida Gators

NATIONAL FORECAST

#26

SEC East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Jim McElwain, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Doug Nussmeier | DEF. COORDINATOR: Geoff Collins

If there’s a formula to hiring the perfect football coach, athletic director Jeremy Foley hopes he’s found it. The have fired their second defensive-minded, first-time head coach with Will Muschamp joining Ron Zook in the former Gator coach club. Replacing Muschamp is a Mountain West coach with an offensive background. The strategy worked once before with Urban Meyer. Can it work again with Jim McElwain?

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Previewing Florida’s Offense for 2015
 

The home to Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun, Urban Meyer’s spread offense and three Heisman-winning quarterbacks ranked last in the SEC in passing in 2012, last in scoring in 2013 and 12th in total offense in 2014. 

Florida hired Jim McElwain from Colorado State to revive its beleaguered attack. Unlike former coach Will Muschamp, McElwain has an offensive background. All eyes will be on his decision between quarterbacks Will Grier and Treon Harris. As a freshman in 2014, Harris’ dual-threat abilities helped him go 4–2 as a starter. Grier, who redshirted last year, is a pocket passer better suited to McElwain’s scheme, which favors high-percentage throws with some vertical passes off play-action mixed in. But Harris’s running ability could be invaluable behind an inexperienced offensive line.

Florida finished the spring with just six healthy scholarship linemen. It is critical center Trip Thurman returns from a shoulder injury, sophomore left tackle David Sharpe develops and incoming freshman Martez Ivey lives up to his billing as the nation’s No. 1 offensive line recruit.

Without a strong line, McElwain will struggle to establish a physical running game, the backbone of his offenses during four seasons at Alabama (2008-11). The past two seasons, Colorado State averaged close to five yards per carry. Florida tailback Kelvin Taylor hopes to break out in his third season, while incoming freshman Jordan Scarlett should make an immediate impact.

Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson and tight end Jake McGee should be the go-to receivers, but the rest of the lot is unproven. Converted tailback Brandon Powell turned heads during spring practices until a recurring foot injury sidelined him.

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

Previewing Florida’s Defense for 2015
 

For all of Muschamp’s failings, fielding a dominant defense was never an issue. The Gators finished the past four regular seasons ranked among the nation’s top-10 defenses. New coordinator Geoff Collins does not envision a letdown. “We want to be one of the best defenses in the country,” he says. 

Many pieces are in place, beginning with one of the nation’s most talented secondaries. Two-time All-SEC cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III anchors the Gators’ star-studded group that also returns three other starters. “I am really impressed with the amount of talent they have collected at the position,” McElwain marveled during the offseason.

Meanwhile, Florida’s front seven has some holes. The Gators’ top two linebackers, Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis, continue to recover from knee injuries sustained late last season. 

Jon Bullard’s decision to return for his senior season was huge for the front four. He and Bryan Cox Jr. are the only Florida linemen who have started a college game. Tackles Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark, both redshirt freshmen, earned raves during the spring.

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Previewing Florida’s Specialists for 2015
 

Placekicker Austin Hardin must become reliable after hitting just 11-of-22 field goals in 2013 and 2014. Punter Johnny Townsend earned SEC All-Freshman honors in 2013 and might be an upgrade over Kyle Christy, a former Ray Guy Award finalist. Florida looks to replace returner Andre Debose, who had five return touchdowns at Florida.

Final Analysis
 

Muschamp’s failure to identify an offensive coordinator or quarterback doomed him, leaving McElwain with a program that won just 11 games the past two seasons. The 53-year-old immediately set out to upgrade Florida’s offensive talent and address lagging facilities. Faced with a massive rebuild, McElwain will need time to field an SEC East contender at a school where championships were once the standard.

The Debate

Where Does Jim McElwain Rank Among the SEC's Coaches?

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