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#39 Penn State Nittany Lions





HEAD COACH: James Franklin, 14-12 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joe Moorhead | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brent Pry

Penn State hasn't quite reached expectations in James Franklin's two seasons, but this team still has a lot of talent and the overall depth has improved. However, playing in one of the hardest divisions that college football has to offer is no small task. The Nittany Lions are looking for a spark on offense, with Franklin turning to former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead as the program's new play-caller. Running back Saquon Barkley is one of the Big Ten's rising stars, but Penn State needs more from its offensive line and quarterback.

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Previewing Penn State’s Offense

The Lions will look very different this fall, and not just because their all-time passing yardage leader, Christian Hackenberg, is off to the NFL. New coordinator Joe Moorhead has been installing a no-huddle spread offense that won’t exactly rekindle memories of the Paterno era. It’s a scheme he deployed effectively as head coach at Fordham the past four years, and he’s got plenty of skill position talent to work with at Penn State, a list headlined by sophomore running back Saquon Barkley and junior wideout Chris Godwin. Barkley finished third in the Big Ten in rushing last season with 1,076 yards, while Godwin was second in receiving yards with 1,101.

The big questions on offense concern the line and the quarterback spot. Up front, the Lions return six players who started at least five games last season, but they will need to do better than simply pick up where they left off in 2015, as the team averaged only 104 yards rushing in its last three games. At quarterback, sophomore Trace McSorley is the only contender with any playing experience. Tommy Stevens is a redshirt freshman, and Jake Zembiec enrolled in January.

Previewing Penn State’s Defense

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

There’s plenty of rebuilding to do up front, where the lone holdover from last year’s starting front four is strong-side defensive end Garrett Sickels. Antoine White and Parker Cothren will likely take over at the tackle spots. At weak-side end, Torrence Brown looks to be a potential starter after seeing action late last season when Carl Nassib got hurt.

The linebacker unit isn’t unproven, but it isn’t deep, either. Much will depend on whether Nyeem Wartman-White is fully recovered from the season-ending knee injury he suffered last September at Temple. Wartman-White was limited in the spring but is expected to battle his replacement, Jason Cabinda, for the middle linebacker position. If he regains his starting spot, Cabinda will move back outside. Penn State is solid at the strong-side spot with Brandon Bell back for his senior year, and the secondary should be another strength with three experienced veterans returning: cornerback Grant Haley, free safety Marcus Allen and strong safety Malik Golden. John Reid, an impact freshman last year, is the likely starter at cornerback opposite Haley.

One priority will be to create more turnovers. Penn State’s defensive backs intercepted only six passes last season.

Previewing Penn State’s Specialists

Joey Julius and Tyler Davis combined to hit 18-of-20 field-goal attempts last year, but that success rate was partly a byproduct of Penn State’s poor red zone offense; only six of those 20 attempts were from 40 yards or more. Given the Lions’ problems on kickoffs and extra points (Julius missed four PATs), incoming freshman Alex Barbir will likely get a shot at the starting job in preseason practice. Another newcomer, punter Blake Gillikin, may get a chance to fix one of Penn State’s bigger liabilities the past two seasons.

Final Analysis

The recruiting gains of the past two years are starting to have an impact, and the effect of the NCAA sanctions is fading, but this program is not in the clear just yet. Since the end of the 2015 regular season, James Franklin has replaced his offensive and defensive coordinators and also hired two new position coaches. The reconfigured staff will have to figure out a way to energize an offense that ranked 13th in the Big Ten last year in yards per game and 11th in scoring. It will also be looking to patch up a defense that lost three starters from a highly effective front four. Still, the Lions are welcoming their third consecutive top-25 recruiting class this summer, so there is reason to believe they have the necessary talent for a breakthrough season. Whether that breakthrough occurs in 2016 is a separate question.   

The Debate

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#38 Pitt Panthers





HEAD COACH: Pat Narduzzi, 8-5 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Canada | DEF. COORDINATOR: Josh Conklin

Pittsburgh fans should feel like they have finally found their man in second-year coach Pat Narduzzi. He has given the fan base something to be excited about as expectations are relatively high entering the fall season. Star running back James Conner is on track to return in 2016, giving the Panthers a potent one-two punch in the backfield with the emergence of Qadree Ollison last year. Additionally, quarterback Nathan Peterman provided stability under center last season and returns for 2016. Replacing standout receiver Tyler Boyd is the biggest challenge for Narduzzi. 

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Previewing Pittsburgh’s Offense

Pittsburgh faces a couple crucial questions entering 2015. The first: Can junior running back James Conner, after enduring MCL surgery and offseason chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, make a comeback? And second: If so, can the powerful runner return to the form that enabled him to rush for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns en route to 2014 ACC Player for the Year honors? The coaching staff believes Conner will be ready. “I know this, James is an inspiration to all of us; he makes us better every day,” says second-year coach Pat Narduzzi. Conner recently announced he was cancer-free and is on track to return by the season opener. 

A healthy Conner would surely bolster a Panthers team that went 8–5 in Narduzzi’s first season. If Pitt has to ease Conner back into his normal workload, sophomore Qadree Ollison offers a quality alternative. Ollison was named the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,121 yards.

The X-factor is senior quarterback Nathan Peterman, a Tennessee transfer who emerged as a leader after taking over in Week 3. He finished second in the ACC in completion percentage (61.5) and third in touchdown passes (20). Peterman also threw just one interception in league play. It is imperative that he provide a steady hand early while the untested receiving corps, which lost all-time great Tyler Boyd to the NFL Draft, settles in.

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Defense

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

True to Narduzzi’s personality, the Pittsburgh defense employs an ultra-aggressive style. Little wonder the Panthers ranked 16th nationally and third in the ACC in sacks last season at 2.85 per game. They also returned three turnovers for touchdowns. Explosive senior defensive end Ejuan Price fits perfectly into the scheme. He nearly set an FBS record with five sacks against Louisville and ranked 10th nationally with 11.5. Fifteen different Panthers players were in on at least one sack.

The star of the defense is sophomore strong safety Jordan Whitehead, who recorded the most tackles (109) by a true freshman in program history and was named the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. Whitehead was deployed at linebacker, corner and even on the offensive side of the ball.

Third-year starting linebacker Matt Galambos (five sacks) serves as the leader of a unit that must improve on scoring defense (26.1 ppg, 57th nationally), and takeaways (16, 97th).

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Specialists

Senior kicker Chris Blewitt returns after converting 15-of-23 field-goal attempts. Returning junior punter Ryan Winslow averaged 41.1 yards, with 21 downed inside the 20. Quadree Henderson and Avonte Maddox each returned kickoffs for touchdowns.

Final Analysis

Narduzzi infused life into a Pittsburgh program that had been stagnating in recent years. Prior to his arrival, the Panthers had finished 6–7, 6–7, 7–6 and 6–7 the previous four seasons. The eight wins in 2015 represented the most in five years. Highlights included a 6–1 start, a 5-1 road record, a second-place finish in the Coastal Division and a trip to the Military Bowl. Panthers partisans are hoping for continued improvement — which is feasible, given that 16 starters return — but the record might not reflect it. The schedule is unforgiving. Pittsburgh faces Penn State, Oklahoma State and North Carolina in Weeks 2-4, then travels to Miami and Clemson later in the season.

“We started to change the culture,” says Narduzzi, the former Michigan State defensive coordinator. “We’re still building. We don’t look too far ahead. We try to win the day.”

Narduzzi is rapidly winning over a fan base that seeks stability after enduring five coaching changes the previous seven years. He says he plans to stick around and build a consistent winner. The foundation appears to be in place.


#37 South Florida Bulls



American Athletic East PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Willie Taggart, 14-23 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Darren Hiller, T.J. Weist | DEF. COORDINATOR: Raymond Woodie

After being one of the hottest teams in November last season, coach Willie Taggart lost to his alma mater (WKU) in the Miami Beach Bowl. But that should just be a blimp in the momentum that is in Tampa right now. Expectations are the highest they’ve been in recent memory for the Bulls, and with running back Marlon Mack and quarterback Quinton Flowers returning, it will be a must-watch fall for USF. 

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Previewing South Florida’s Offense

Junior running back Marlon Mack, who has 2,422 career rushing yards and 17 touchdowns in two seasons, is South Florida’s best player and a legitimate All-America candidate.

Mack was a huge reason why the Bulls went 8–5 in 2015, snapping a streak of four consecutive losing seasons. But junior quarterback Quinton Flowers was the biggest impetus for the turnaround. Flowers was dynamic in his first season as full-time starter, accumulating 3,287 total yards and 34 touchdowns, including 991 yards rushing. He was known for spectacular playmaking skill but defined by his ability to avoid mistakes. “Quinton gave us an identity,” coach Willie Taggart says. “We think he has some room to improve, but what he did was really impressive.”

And now he has a capable backup in sophomore Asiantii Woulard, a UCLA transfer who was a four-star recruit in high school.

Flowers has a proliferation of targets at wide receiver, including senior Rodney Adams, who set the school’s single-season receiving yards record, and junior Marquez Valdes-Scantling, a 6'3" transfer from NC State who caught everyone’s attention with startling plays during spring drills.

The offensive line was a major strength in 2015 and had the same lineup for all 13 games. But now it must be retooled with the replacement of three starters.

Previewing South Florida’s Defense

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

The Bulls received bad news in the offseason when defensive coordinator Tom Allen, architect of the 4-2-5 alignment that transformed the unit into an aggressive, ball-hawking strength, left for the same position at Indiana.

But Raymond Woodie, the linebackers coach who was promoted, says the Bulls will keep the 4-2-5 and hopefully build upon its success, which included lofty national rankings in tackles for a loss (13th), interceptions (14th) and turnovers gained (24th).

The defensive leaders are junior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who had 117 tackles, and senior weak-side linebacker Nigel Harris, a constant threat to make a splash play.

The secondary matured and features mix-and-match options such as junior cornerback Deatrick Nichols (a first-team all-conference performer), junior free safety Devin Abraham and sophomore cornerback Ronnie Hoggins.

Woodie says the defensive line will utilize its depth while keeping players fresh. Run-stuffing should be a strength with junior Deadrin Senat and sophomore Kevin Bronson leading the way at defensive tackle.

Previewing South Florida’s Specialists

Taggart wants even more consistency from placekicker Emilio Nadelman, who made nine straight attempts to finish the regular season. After three seasons with Mattias Ciabatti, an expert at placing punts inside the 20-yard line, the Bulls will turn to sophomore Brent Gordon. Adams, despite limited opportunities on kickoffs, and junior Tajee Fullwood, ultra-dependable on punts, are among the nation’s top return men.

Final Analysis

The Bulls made a huge leap last season, making their first bowl appearance since 2010. Now they return 14 starters, including exciting options at the skill positions, and that has prompted caution from Taggart. “We are a target,” the coach says. “People are going to circle us on their schedule, and we will get everyone’s best shot. But that’s what we want. We want to be a team that people look to and expect big things from. I have to keep reminding our guys, ‘We really haven’t done anything yet.’ ”

USF could very well become one of the nation’s most dangerous teams. But here’s the key: The Bulls were well-versed in handling adversity. Can they handle prosperity? If so, they have conference title potential.


#36 San Diego State Aztecs





HEAD COACH: Rocky Long, 43-23 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Horton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rocky Long

The Aztecs took a huge step forward last season and look to keep that momentum going into 2016. Not only did San Diego State win the Mountain West in 2015, the 11 victories also tied for the best mark in program history. Coach Rocky Long will once again lean on dynamic running back Donnell Pumphrey and lockdown cornerback Damontae Kazee to win the conference in 2016. The Aztecs have some uncertainty at quarterback and in the receiving corps, but Long's team should be strong on defense and with the ground attack once again. 

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Previewing San Diego State’s Offense

Running back Donnel Pumphrey is back for an encore campaign after rushing for 1,653 yards and winning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year honors. Pumphrey considered leaving for the NFL but decided he wanted to take aim at Marshall Faulk’s school career rushing mark (4,589 yards from 1991-93). “I would like to break all of Faulk’s records,” says Pumphrey, who enters the campaign with 4,272 yards. “He’s an NFL Hall of Famer and had a terrific college career, and it would be a great accomplishment for our team if I was able to achieve that.”

Pumphrey’s return is also beneficial for quarterback Christian Chapman, who will need to prove he can be a downfield thrower after winning three consecutive starts to end last season after an injury to starter Maxwell Smith. The receiving group is a weakness, and that could affect Chapman’s growth. Pumphrey’s 28 receptions led the Aztecs last season, and Mikah Holder’s modest 24 catches were the best among the wideouts and tight ends.

First-team all-conference guard Nico Siragusa is the headliner of the offensive line, which returns three starters from a group that helped San Diego State rush for a school-record 3,266 yards.

Previewing San Diego State’s Defense

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

Cornerback Damontae Kazee was the MW Defensive Player of the Year last season after intercepting eight passes and forcing two fumbles. He originally announced he was leaving for the NFL, but a week later he stunningly changed his mind and said he was returning for his final college season. Kazee’s return allows San Diego State to keep its status as the top defense in the conference as he routinely quiets the receivers who line up on his side of the field.

Safety Malik Smith had 77 tackles and five interceptions and should take another step forward. Outside linebacker Calvin Munson is another standout on a defense that allowed 16.4 points per game; he totaled 98 tackles and 9.5 sacks. Defensive ends Alex Barrett (5.5 sacks) and Kyle Kelley (7.5) are strong performers up front. The Aztecs allowed 17 or fewer points in nine of their final 10 games last season and have the talent to be a stingy unit again this season.

Previewing San Diego State’s Specialists

Not only do the Aztecs return the top offensive and defensive players in the conference, they also possess the reigning Special Teams Player of the Year in Rashaad Penny, a dynamic kickoff returner. Penny averaged 33.5 yards per return last season and scored TDs on three of his 24 opportunities. Punter Tanner Blain doesn’t kick for distance — only eight of his 77 efforts went for 50 or more yards — but he stifled the opponent’s return game with 25 placed inside the 20-yard line along with 24 fair catches. Kicker Donny Hageman is out of eligibility, so the field goal duties fall to John Baron II, a left-footer with a powerful leg.

Final Analysis

San Diego State matched the school’s major-college record for victories (11) last season — it was originally done in 11 games in 1969 under legendary Don Coryell — and will have an opportunity to reach those heights again this season. The Aztecs have developed a high level of toughness during Rocky Long’s five seasons as coach and also a resiliency to overcome obstacles that was seldom seen at the school for most of the previous two decades. The result has been six consecutive bowl games and last season’s conference title — the Aztecs’ first outright league title since claiming the Western Athletic Conference crown in 1986.

San Diego State will be favored to win the West Division, and the ultimate goal will be another MW title. Championship expectations are still a new thing for the Aztecs, but the 42–7 demolition of Cincinnati in the Hawaii Bowl showed that this crew is ripe to tack on more accomplishments.