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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#30 Arizona Wildcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#30

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Rich Rodriguez, 26-14 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Calvin Magee, Rod Smith | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Casteel

Arizona fans undoubtedly felt a sense of optimism with the arrival of Rich Rodriguez to Tucson. The Wildcats hoped Rodriguez could do for them what he did for West Virginia in turning a program with pockets of success into one with staying power. Even 2014, though, had to come as a bit of surprise. In only his third season at Arizona, Rodriguez led the Wildcats to the Pac-12 title game and their first 10-win season and ranked season since 1998. Could Arizona be a contender for a second consecutive year? With the backfield of Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson, a Lombardi Award winner in Scooby Wright and RichRod in tow, Arizona can’t be counted out.

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Previewing Arizona’s Offense in 2015
 

Sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon is the first holdover QB starter at Arizona since Nick Foles in 2010-11. He is not a fast runner, nor notably elusive, and he doesn’t have NFL-type arm strength. But as he was as a Las Vegas prep quarterback — 57–3 with four state championships — he has proved to be a winner at Arizona. 

Solomon’s numbers — 3,793 passing yards and 28 touchdown passes — broke school freshman records. Redshirt freshman Brandon Dawkins struggled with passing accuracy in spring practice. Fifth-year senior Jerrard Randall, once an LSU quarterback, is a running threat with explosiveness, but his decision-making and accuracy have kept him on the bench. 

Sophomore tailback Nick Wilson required little break-in time, gaining 1,375 yards as a freshman. He is a power runner with what coach Rich Rodriguez calls “good eyes,” adept at hitting openings and making something out of nothing. Fifth-year senior Jared Baker is the clear No. 2. 

Cayleb Jones is among the nation’s best receivers. In his first year as a starter, he caught 73 balls for 1,019 yards and was a go-to receiver in clutch situations. He heads a deep and experienced group, which is the strength of Arizona’s offense. Samajie Grant became a big-play receiver with 45 receptions, six for touchdowns. 

Losing three-year starting tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele hasn’t been a setback. Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa will start at left tackle and is expected to play at an all-conference level. Guards Jacob Alsadek and Cayman Bundage are returning starters, and the new right tackle, Lene Maiava, has started at two positions up front. The uncertainty is at center; two former walk-ons, Carter Wood and David Catalano, are frontrunners.

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.

Previewing Arizona’s Defense in 2015
 

Senior end Reggie Gilbert was awarded a fifth year by the NCAA, which was one of the triumphs of spring practice for Arizona. He is the rock of Arizona’s three-man front. Junior Sani Fuimaono and sophomore Parker Zellers will likely split the nose guard job; both played extensively, although Zellers, listed at 247 pounds, gets by on instincts rather than strength.

If linebacker Scooby Wright can match his sophomore numbers — 163 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss, 14 sacks — the Wildcats will be hard to beat. The Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year has considerable experience beside him: Juniors Cody Ippolito, Jake Matthews and Derrick Turituri all started at least six games.  

Arizona didn’t pause long to replace three starters in its secondary. Senior safeties Jamar Allah and Tellas Jones combined for 47 tackles last season and are physical players. Sophomore cornerback Jarvis McCall Jr., who started 12 games, might have difficulty reclaiming his job. Junior DaVonte’ Neal, who was a receiver/returner last year, moved to corner in spring ball and appeared to win the job. The Notre Dame transfer likely will be joined at the other corner by sophomore Cam Denson, also a former receiver/returner but now strictly a defensive player. 

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

Previewing Arizona’s Specialists in 2015
 

Senior kicker Casey Skowron and senior punter Drew Riggleman were so good last season that Rodriguez awarded both with full scholarships midway through the season. Skowron made 20-of-28 field-goal attempts, including a game-winner against Washington. Riggleman was second in the Pac-12 in punting average, at 46.1.

Final Analysis
 

Arizona has won 26 games in Rodriguez’s first three seasons, the most of any three-year period in school history. “I’m not saying we’re ahead of expectations,” says Rodriguez, “because we need to get deeper and tougher.” This is Rodriguez’s top group at Arizona, but it must play 12 weeks in succession without a bye.

The Debate

Is Rich Rodriguez the Best Coach in the Pac-12?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#32 Penn State Nittany Lions

NATIONAL FORECAST

#32

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: James Franklin, 7-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Donovan | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bob Shoop

If not for an NCAA decision midway through 2014, the highlight of last season may have been a win over UCF on Aug. 30 across the Atlantic Ocean. The Nittany Lions started 4-0 but struggled through most of the season thanks largely to a thin offensive line. They did, however, get to six wins, key since the NCAA lifted their bowl ban. Penn State took advantage by defeating Boston College 31-30 in the Pinstripe Bowl. That progress should continue in the second season under James Franklin and the first full season as Penn State returns to full strength.

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Previewing Penn State’s Offense in 2015 
 

Christian Hackenberg is looking for a bounce-back season after seeing his touchdown-interception ratio go from 20-to-10 as a freshman to 12-to-15 as a sophomore. But most of the questions on offense concern his supporting cast. 

Hackenberg was sacked a Big Ten-worst 44 times last year, so figuring out how to protect No. 14 is high on the to-do list. The Lions have six linemen with starting experience back, a big improvement over last year, when only one member of the first-team unit had ever started a college game prior to opening day. 

The receiving corps mirrors the line, in that it’s looking to reap the benefits of last year’s trial by fire. Sophomores DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall all saw extensive action in 2014, with Hamilton catching a league-best 82 passes. 

In the backfield, the Lions welcome back last year’s leading rusher, junior Akeel Lynch, along with a quintet of highly regarded freshmen. 

With most of his supporting cast returning, hopes are ratcheting back up for Hackenberg’s junior season. In the two games last season in which he was healthy and well-protected — the opener vs. UCF and the Pinstripe Bowl vs. Boston College — he combined to complete 68 percent of his passes for 825 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions. That’ll do nicely. 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Penn State’s Defense in 2015
 

Tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel are rock solid. The 6'4", 325-pound Johnson was the unsung hero of a Penn State defense that last season ranked third nationally against the run. Zettel, meanwhile, played a very prominent role, leading the team in tackles for a loss (17) and sacks (eight) and tying for the lead in interceptions (three). 

The Lions will have two holes to fill at defensive end — Garrett Sickels and Carl Nassib are the leading candidates — but their biggest vacancy is at middle linebacker, where someone needs to replace last year’s Big Ten tackling leader, Mike Hull. Junior Nyeem Wartman, a two-year starter at outside backer, slid inside in spring practice, with returning starter Brandon Bell and sophomore Jason Cabinda outside. 

The secondary returns three starters and should be a strength. Marcus Allen started the last seven games of his true freshman season and “played as well as any safety in college football the second half of the year,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop says. At free safety, the Lions will rely on Jordan Lucas, a two-year starter at cornerback. Sophomore Grant Haley looks like the leading contender for Lucas’ former position, while senior Trevor Williams returns at the opposite cornerback spot.  

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

 

Previewing Penn State’s Specialists in 2015
 

Franklin referred to walk-on Joey Julius as “Big Toe” this spring. A redshirt freshman, Julius has yet to attempt a field goal or PAT in a college game, but he’s battling deposed punter Chris Gulla for the job. The Lions punted erratically last season, so there’s a competition under way between Daniel Pasquariello and Robby Liebel. 

Final Analysis
 

The Lions have addressed their glaring weakness, building depth and experience along a patchwork offensive line. They’ll still be young up front, with only one senior on the projected two-deep (two if you count incoming graduate transfer Kevin Reihner), but the line probably won’t be as big of a liability. On the opposite side of the ball, they return seven starters from what was, statistically, the Big Ten’s best defense last season. 

Of Penn State’s six losses last fall, only two were by more than a touchdown. If the defense holds strong and Hackenberg gets a chance to show what he can do, it’s not hard to imagine the Lions turning a few of those close losses into close wins in 2015. 

The Debate

Where Does James Franklin Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#33 Texas Longhorns

NATIONAL FORECAST

#33

Big 12 PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Charlie Strong, 6-7 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shawn Watson, Joe Wickline | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vance Bedford

The first year of Charlie Strong’s tenure ended in essence where it started. In the second game of the season, Texas lost 41-7 to BYU. The Longhorns finished with an offensively inept 31-7 loss to Arkansas in a bowl game. That, of course, is not even close to good enough for Texas. Yet despite these low points, Texas managed to win three of its last four regular season games and finish 5-4 in the Big 12. The Longhorns defeated Texas Tech and Oklahoma State on the road and a ranked West Virginia team at home, which will have to suffice for a team that lost to Baylor, Kansas State and TCU by a combined score of 99-17. Progress in 2015, however, will need to be more pronounced.

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Previewing the Texas Offense in 2015:
 

Gone is the pro-style offense installed last year for quarterbacks David Ash (medical hardship) and Max Wittek, a graduate-transfer prospect who never graduated from USC.

The offense has been replaced by an up-tempo, spread attack that should feature the dual-threat talents of Tyrone Swoopes, redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard and incoming freshman Kai Locksley.

Swoopes, who went 5–7 as the starter in 2014 with 13 TD passes and 11 INTs, was still the team’s No. 1 QB coming out of the spring. But Heard had “really closed the gap,” according to head coach Charlie Strong. And quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson said the development of Heard was “the single-most important thing” that happened to the team in the spring. There’s a chance coaches will play both QBs early in the season until one truly separates.

Senior Johnathan Gray leads a talented group of running backs that includes redshirt freshman Donald “Duke” Catalon and sophomore D’Onta Foreman, a 231-pound bruiser who averaged 4.9 yards per carry.

The big questions on offense are on the line and at receiver. Six offensive linemen, including four early enrollees, were signed in the 2015 class to beef up a group devoid of talent and depth last season. At receiver, coaches want multiple playmakers to emerge after the departure of 1,000-yard receiver John Harris. But none of the leading candidates are proven.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing the Texas Defense in 2015:
 

The D-line is the strength of the football team. Senior tackle Desmond Jackson, who is returning from a lisfranc (foot) injury, and Hassan Ridgeway lead a deep and talented group of tackles and ends.

Linebacker is a big question mark after losing the team’s top two tacklers from last season — Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond. Coaches will turn first to senior Peter Jinkens and junior Tim Cole. If those two don’t step up, the linebacking corps will be taken over by a highly decorated group of freshmen, including Ed Freeman and five-star early enrollee Malik Jefferson.

Coaches had high hopes for senior corners Duke Thomas and Sheroid Evans. But Evans suffered a serious knee injury in the spring and is likely lost for the season. Like the linebacker position, a very talented group of freshmen could take over at corner. At safety, Jason Hall is a big hitter, and former walk-on Dylan Haines led the team in interceptions (four) last season.

Previewing the Texas Specialists in 2015: 
 

Texas had some of the nation’s worst special teams last season. Strong hired Jeff Traylor, a highly successful coach at perennial power Gilmer High in East Texas, to improve things as tight ends/special teams coach. Texas will count on kicker Nick Rose, who is 14-of-21 on career field-goal attempts, and walk-on punter Mitchell Becker. Speedsters Daje Johnson, Jacorey Warrick and freshman Ryan Newsome hope to improve an anemic return game.

Final Analysis
 

Charlie Strong is still rebuilding in many ways after replacing his offense as well as two assistant coaches (Strong fired receivers coach Les Koenning and tight ends coach Bruce Chambers) after one season. Strong brought in former Oklahoma co-OC Jay Norvell as receivers coach, and Traylor replaced Chambers.

The defense will undoubtedly be the strength again this year. Special teams must improve. But it will be the direction of an offense that averaged an anemic 21.4 points per game in 2014 that will determine the fate of the Longhorns this season.

With a schedule that includes road games against potential top-10 teams Notre Dame, TCU and Baylor, the quarterback play has to lead a turnaround in 2015 or the results could be very similar to last year’s 6–7.

The Debate

Where Does Charlie Strong Rank Among Big 12 Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#29 Nebraska Cornhuskers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#29

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Mike Riley, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Danny Langsdorf | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mark Banker

Nebraska football needed a culture change heading into 2015, and in new coach Mike Riley, the Cornhuskers have that. Nebraska traded the abrasive, tightly wound Bo Pelini for the former Oregon State coach who is known for being one of the most relaxed coaches in a profession marked by Type A personalities. Whether Riley can deliver different results from his predecessor remains to be seen. Nine and 10 wins became the norm for Pelini, yet that was a mark Riley hit only once since 2008.

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Previewing Nebraska’s Offense for 2015
 

Mike Riley has installed a pro-style offense with returning starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback. Armstrong, the team’s second-leading rusher a year ago behind the departed Ameer Abdullah, will become more of a pocket passer. 

Among the first things offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf told Armstrong was that he wasn’t a runner, though the threat of his running will continue to be a concern for opposing defenses, especially in third-down situations. Armstrong completed 53 percent of his passes for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns with 12 interceptions last season. Langsdorf is expecting increased efficiency.

Look for De’Mornay Pierson-El to be featured at wide receiver, along with veteran Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly, who came as a walk-on.

Terrell Newby and Imani Cross are the most experienced of the running backs, a position where there will be continued competition for playing time in fall camp as the Huskers look to replace departed All-American Ameer Abdullah.

Regardless of the system, success will depend on the play up front. The line is built around left tackle Alex Lewis, a candidate for postseason honors and the only returning lineman who started every game last season. He sets the tone emotionally.

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.

Previewing Nebraska’s Defense for 2015 
 

In the spring, players on defense talked about being freed up to make plays in coordinator Mark Banker’s system. Banker said, jokingly, he didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or that it meant the system was “like being in elementary school.” 

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are returning starters at tackle. Collins’ quickness allowed him to lead the team in tackles for a loss in the previous system, so he could be even more effective. Valentine is a “load to block,” says defensive line coach Hank Hughes. Kevin Williams is a third proven tackle.

Depth is a concern at defensive end, where Greg McMullen returns, and linebacker, where young players will be in the mix with David Santos, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey, who returns after missing all of last season with a knee injury.

Safety Nate Gerry, cornerback Daniel Davie and nickel Byerson Cockrell are a place to start, but the secondary rotation will include young players, possibly a true freshman or two.

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

Previewing Nebraska’s Specialists for 2015
 

Pierson-El was among the best punt returners in the country as a true freshman, returning three for touchdowns. Special teams coach Bruce Read doesn’t plan to use him on kickoff returns, however, because of his importance as a receiver. Sam Foltz and Drew Brown are the returning punter and placekicker, respectively, and the recruits include long-snapper Jordan Ober. Nebraska hasn’t had an assistant assigned solely to special teams in the past. But such a position is “very, very key,” Riley says.

Final Analysis 
 

Nebraska won nine or more games in each of Bo Pelini’s seven seasons as coach. His overall record was 67–27. So Riley can expect to be held to a high standard. But he is considerably more engaging than his predecessor, which probably means there will be some degree of patience during the transition.

The non-conference schedule could be challenging, with an opener at home against BYU and a trip to Miami (Fla.) two weeks later. But the conference schedule is such that nine wins, even in transition, should be possible. Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999. Winning one this year would be a stretch, though the Huskers should contend in the Big Ten West if the defense improves.

The Debate

Will Tommy Armstrong Rank Among the Top Five Big Ten QBs in 2015?

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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

NC State 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.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

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.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, 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.

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

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 
 

NC State 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

#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

Cincinnati enters its third season under coach Tommy Tuberville as the favorite to win the American Athletic Conference. 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 Cincinnati 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.

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

Previewing Cincinnati’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, 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 American Athletic Conference. 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

#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

Utah should be feeling pretty good for 2015. The Utes are coming off their best season as Pac-12 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.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Utah’s Offense for 2015 
 

Utah 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 Pac-12, 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.

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.

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. 

Cornerback Dominique Hatfield leads Utah’s secondary. Converted quarterback Jason Thompson was a surprise in the spring, competing at safety with Marcus Williams. 

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

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 Pac-12 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?

Click here to join the debate.




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 Florida football coach, athletic director Jeremy Foley hopes he’s found it. The Gators 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.

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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.

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

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.

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