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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#6 USC Trojans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#6

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Steve Sarkisian, 9-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Clay Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Justin Wilcox

High expectations are back at USC, as the Trojans return 14 starters from last year’s 9-4 team. Quarterback Cody Kessler headlines an offense that averaged 35.8 points per game in 2014. Kessler is surrounded by one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines and receiving corps. Scoring points won’t be an issue for second-year coach Steve Sarkisian, but the defense must replace standout end Leonard Williams and needs to show improvement after giving up over 400 yards per game in 2014.

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Previewing USC’s Offense for 2015 


This could be one of the more explosive offenses in the country. Quarterback Cody Kessler returns from one of the better under-the-radar seasons in recent memory. All he did as a junior was complete 69.7 percent of his passes while throwing for 39 touchdowns and only five interceptions. With the gifted Nelson Agholor gone, Kessler’s new go-to receiver will be JuJu Smith, who was a Freshman All-American a year ago. Then there is Steven Mitchell, the shifty new slot receiver who might have been the MVP of spring practice, as well as Adoree’ Jackson, another Freshman All-American who might be the most exciting two-way player in America. A full-time starter at cornerback, Jackson also will be utilized more as a pass catcher, especially after his breakout game against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

The Trojans will miss Javorius “Buck” Allen and his 1,489 yards rushing at tailback, but they hope to feature Justin Davis, a slashing, breakaway type, and Tre Madden, who likes to rumble between the tackles, as a new complementary pair. Highly regarded freshman Ronald Jones should also work into the mix, along with Soma Vainuku, an intimidating 270-pound fullback who could be the short yardage answer.

The offensive line might be the deepest and strongest unit on the team. Max Tuerk is an All-Pac-12 center. He will be flanked by a pair of Freshman All-Americans in Viane Talamaivao at guard and Toa Lobendahn at tackle. Guard Damien Mama and tackle Zach Banner, a couple of beefy, 350-plus pounders, round out a group that is as active as it is physical.

Previewing USC’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

You can’t lose the best defensive end in the country and a captain and spiritual leader at linebacker and not feel it. All-American Leonard Williams and leading tackler Hayes Pullard will be difficult to replace, especially for a team that often struggled late in games. But the Trojans are not without their share of talent on defense. The new all-star candidate is Su’a Cravens, who led the team in interceptions (three) and tackles for a loss (17.0) last year as an All-Pac-12 hybrid outside linebacker/safety.

Up front, senior Antwaun Woods will try to set the tone at nose tackle. Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon and Scott Felix, more of an OLB/end hybrid, round out a solid, if unspectacular, group.

The linebackers joining Cravens will be Lamar Dawson, probably USC’s most improved player this spring, and the always aggressive Anthony Sarao.

The secondary is led by the aforementioned Jackson, who is among the country’s finest cover cornerbacks. Kevon Seymour, coming off a fine spring, will start at the other corner. The starting safeties are likely to be the improving John Plattenburg and Leon McQuay III, although true freshman Iman Marshall should quickly work his way into the rotation.

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

Previewing USC’s Specialists for 2015


Solid senior Kris Albarado is in his third year as USC’s punter. But there is a vacancy at placekicker, where newcomers Matt Boermeester and Alex Wood will battle for the job in fall practice. Boermeester will enter with a small advantage.

Final Analysis 


Coming off a 9–4 season that left most Trojans boosters feeling mildly disappointed, coach Steve Sarkisian will face the pressure of huge expectations this fall. The offense should score plenty of points. But it is the defense — which was mauled by the likes of Boston College, Arizona State and UCLA a year ago — that must show significant improvement, and that won’t be easy without the departed Williams and Pullard. With Kessler, Smith, Jackson and Co., spectacular plays should be plentiful. But in the end, this team will go only as far as the defense takes it.

The Debate

Is Cody Kessler the Best Quarterback in the Pac-12?

Click here to join the debate.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#5 TCU Horned Frogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#5

Big 12 PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Gary Patterson, 132-45 (14 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Sonny Cumbie, Doug Meacham | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dick Bumpas

TCU just missed out on the college football playoff last season, and the Horned Frogs are poised for another run at the national championship in 2015. Quarterback Trevone Boykin was one of the nation’s most improved players in the nation last year, and there’s no shortage of skill talent in Fort Worth. Defense is coach Gary Patterson’s strong point, but the secondary and linebacking corps are concerns after a few key personnel departures.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing TCU’s Offense for 2015


Trevone Boykin set eight school records last year in his first full season as a quarterback, throwing for 3,901 yards and 33 touchdowns and ranking fourth in the nation in total offense. Imagine him with a year of experience in the “Air Raid” offense installed last season.

He won’t be the only one who can gain from a year of experience. His top receiver, Josh Doctson, set his own single-season school records for yards and touchdown catches. Kolby Listenbee emerged as a stretch-the-field vertical receiver. Deante’ Gray showcased home-run speed out of the slot.

Running back Aaron Green ran for almost 1,000 yards despite not starting until November. Kyle Hicks, a sophomore the Horned Frogs flipped from Texas two years ago, could be primed for heavier action, and former Nebraska four-star running back Shaun Nixon is back from an ACL injury.

Everyone will operate behind an offensive line that returns four starters with 74 starts among them, including third-year starting center Joey Hunt. Right tackle Hala Vaitai will move to the left side, so not all four returners are in the same spots. But the staff believes another offseason of work in the system will yield benefits for everyone.

Previewing TCU’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big 12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

TCU coach Gary Patterson has a reputation for enjoying defensive rebuilds. Well, he has one on his hands this time with the loss of both his linebackers, including leading tackler and All-America senior Paul Dawson, and the team leader in interceptions, safety Chris Hackett, who surprised him with an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Linebackers get a lot of responsibility in the 4-2-5, so Patterson emphasized athleticism and awareness with early enrollees Mike Freeze and Alec Dunham.

For the secondary, the Horned Frogs are looking for speed and height at Hackett’s spot, and 6'2" senior Kenny Iloka got the first shot. At cornerback, the Frogs will be young with another early enrollee, four-star Louisiana freshman DeShawn Raymond, but incumbent Ranthony Texada started all 13 games as a freshman a year ago. Patterson may hedge his bet at corner with a look at receivers Gray and Cameron Echols-Luper.

Defensive tackle Davion Pierson, whose 31 starts are the most on the team, leads the unit least affected by graduation. Nebraska transfer Aaron Curry has big-game experience but hasn’t played in a year.

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

Previewing TCU’s Specialists for 2015


Placekicker Jaden Oberkrom and punter Ethan Perry both enter their fourth seasons. Oberkrom, who won the pressure-packed West Virginia road game on a last-second kick, is the nation’s active leader with 58 field goals and third in Big 12 history in percentage made over 40 yards. Perry ranked eighth in the nation with 45.3 percent of his punts downed inside the 20. TCU allowed minus-9 yards in punt returns all year. Echols-Luper returned a punt for a TD at Kansas.

Final Analysis


This is a very good team, with experience and playmaking at the offensive skill positions, and a reliable history of defense under Patterson. But the Horned Frogs have their sights set on being more than very good. Last season convinced them they could go undefeated even in the Big 12 and be a CFB Playoff team. But first, the Horned Frogs will have to win on the road. They left Texas only twice last season before the bowl game. This year, it will be five times, including a late-season trip to Norman before the final showdown against Baylor. Performing in hostile environments and managing expectations may be the toughest challenges of all. 

The Debate

Is Gary Patterson the Best Coach in the Big 12?

Click here to join the debate.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#7 Michigan State Spartans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#7

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Mark Dantonio, 75-31 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Bollman, Dave Warner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Harlon Barnett, Mike Tressel

Mark Dantonio has transformed Michigan State into one of the nation’s top programs in recent years. The Spartans have claimed at least 11 wins in four out of the last five years and finished No. 3 nationally in 2013. Dantonio’s team is poised for another run at the Big Ten title, especially with senior quarterback Connor Cook back under center. But the big question for Michigan State is on defense with a secondary that loses its top two players from last year and lost coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Michigan State’s Offense for 2015


Michigan State has a third-year starter in Connor Cook who’s poised to become the winningest quarterback in school history and set several all-time passing marks this season.  Cook has the advantage of being protected by what’s expected to be the best offensive line of the Mark Dantonio era. Senior All-American Jack Allen brings an ornery presence to center, while left tackle Jack Conklin is a celebrated talent some project to be a future first-round NFL Draft pick.

The extent of the Spartans’ offensive success is a matter of who steps up to replace Big Ten Receiver of the Year Tony Lippett and 1,500-yard rusher Jeremy Langford. The Spartans have plenty of talent at the receiver and running back positions, but it is unproven. Players will need to grow up quickly with a Sept. 12 home game against 2014 national runner-up Oregon looming.

Cook has great accuracy and a strong arm, leading the Big Ten in passing yardage last season, but receivers such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton need to be more consistent, and the Spartans have plenty of room for improvement in gaining yards after the catch. Tight end Josiah Price likely will remain one of Cook’s favorite third-down and red-zone targets.

Tailback is less settled, with the status of Delton Williams up in the air after his indefinite suspension in the spring, and slashers Madre London and Gerald Holmes jockeying for pole position heading into fall camp. Incoming freshman LJ Scott will compete immediately for the starting tailback job regardless of how the depth chart reads entering August.

Previewing Michigan State’s Defense for 2015

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


The Spartans have finished in the nation’s top 10 in total defense the past four years, and a dominant front four could keep that streak alive. It starts with former Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun at one end, and the quick and powerful Lawrence Thomas shifting from tackle to the other end. Seniors Damon Knox and Joel Heath are at tackle alongside towering Freshman All-American Malik McDowell.

The Spartans return better-than-adequate outside linebackers Ed Davis and Darien Harris, with junior Riley Bullough fast becoming a rising star in the middle.

The question mark on the team is in the secondary, where Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Kurtis Drummond and first-round talent Trae Waynes must be replaced. Athletic sophomore Montae Nicholson seems up to the task of playing alongside veteran RJ Williamson at safety, but the corners are much less certain. Junior Darian Hicks started 10 games last season but must win back his starting job, and redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland and senior Arjen Colquhoun are in close competition. Junior Demetrious Cox has been a safety but is talented enough to play cornerback if needed. The position is shaky enough that true freshmen will be thrown into the mix in fall camp.

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

Previewing Michigan State’s Specialists for 2015


Kicker Michael Geiger is coming off an offseason procedure for a hip pointer. Redshirt freshman Jake Hartbarger has a big leg but is unproven at punter. Macgarrett Kings Jr. is expected to handle punt return duties, while Shelton is a good bet to continue to return kicks after running one back 90 yards for a score against Penn State last season.

Final Analysis


Michigan State has an accomplished quarterback, strong-to-dominant play on both the offensive and defensive lines, and 24 seniors. The Spartans must prove they have elite talent at the other skill positions to attain their goals of winning the Big Ten and making the College Football Playoff. There is great potential but still much to be determined in fall camp.

The Debate

Where Does Mark Dantonio Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

Click here to join the debate.




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