#67 Colorado Buffaloes





HEAD COACH: Mike MacIntyre, 6-18 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Lindgren | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jim Leavitt

Thought this may be tough to prove to an outsider, Colorado improved in 2014 despite a 2-10 record and a winless Pac-12 season. The Buffaloes were more competitive at least as far as the scoreboard was concerned in the second season under Mike MacIntyre. If the Buffs can flip the margins a little further and sweep its non-conference schedule, they will start to show more tangible progress.

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Previewing Colorado’s Offense in 2015 

Colorado took some big steps forward offensively in 2014, ranking 40th in the nation in yards per game, up 50 spots from the previous season. The Buffs are hoping to build on that success with many of their key contributors back. 

Junior Sefo Liufau will enter the season as the starting quarterback for the second consecutive year hoping to build on his successes as a sophomore while also focusing on taking better care of the ball. He has 18 starts under his belt, has attempted 749 passes and thrown for nearly 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. There is a lot to like about that experience, but Liufau also has thrown 23 interceptions, and he’ll have to dramatically curtail his miscues for the Buffs to take a big step forward in the win column. 

Nelson Spruce was on the other end of almost one-third of Liufau’s completions last season, hauling in 106 passes for 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns. Speedy Shay Fields caught 50 balls as a true freshman last year. 

Christian Powell has led the Buffs in rushing for three straight years, though his role has diminished since carrying the ball 158 times as a true freshman in 2012. Michael Adkins II and sophomore Phillip Lindsay played extensively in the four-back rotation Colorado employed in 2014.  Colorado added Boise State transfer Aaron Baltazar to the roster and also signed two running backs from the high school ranks.

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 Colorado’s Defense in 2015 

Stopping opponents has been a problem since Colorado joined the Pac-12. The Buffs ranked 102nd in the nation in rushing defense and 116th in scoring defense last season. Those numbers led head coach Mike MacIntyre to hire a new defensive coordinator in former South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt, and he added former Central Michigan defensive coordinator Joe Tumpkin to coach safeties. 

Nose tackle Josh Tupou is a three-year starter who has NFL potential. Samson Kafovalu took the 2014 season off for personal reasons but has returned to bolster the interior. Defensive end Derek McCartney is coming off a strong redshirt freshman season. Junior college transfers Jordan Carrell, Blake Robbins and Leo Jackson look like impact players. 

MacIntyre has two experienced linebackers in juniors Addison Gillam and Kenneth Olugbode. Keeping them healthy is a must because there isn’t much experience behind them. 

The secondary might be the deepest and most talented unit on the team, thanks in part to senior safety Jered Bell being awarded a sixth season of eligibility. Cornerback Ken Crawley will be starting for the fourth straight year. 
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Colorado’s Specialists in 2015 

CU lost four-year starters at placekicker and punter but might have addressed both positions by signing standout Alex Kinney from just up the road in Fort Collins. Kinney was rated among the nation’s best punters coming out of high school. He could steal the placekicking duties away from Diego Gonzalez, a lefty who has struggled with accuracy but has a strong leg, and walk-on Chris Graham, who competed with Gonzalez in the spring. 

Final Analysis

Colorado won only two games in coach MacIntyre’s second season and went winless in conference play for the first time in 99 years. Despite those harsh realities, there were tangible signs that the program is finally on the right track and in position to become more competitive in the Pac-12. Four of the Buffaloes’ nine league losses came by five points or fewer, including double-overtime losses to Cal and UCLA. The goal in Year 3 is to turn some of those close losses into wins and make a move out of the Pac-12 South basement.

The Debate

Is Nelson Spruce the Top WR in the Pac-12?

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#66 Washington State Cougars





HEAD COACH: Mike Leach, 12-25 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Leach | DEF. COORDINATOR: Alex Grinch

Washington State may have been ahead of schedule when the Cougars reached a bowl game in 2013, even if they finished with a losing record after the collapse against Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl. After a 3-9 season, Washington State needs to get back on track in the fourth season under Mike Leach. The Cougars will have a new quarterback who got his feet wet last season and a new defensive coordinator, so this may be an uphill climb.

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Previewing Washington State’s Offense for 2015

Little-known redshirt freshman Luke Falk filled in admirably when starter Connor Halliday went down against USC, throwing for 346 yards and two touchdowns. He won his first start by tossing five touchdowns at Oregon State and showed impressive poise and mobility while finishing the season with 13 touchdown passes and more than 1,800 yards in just six games. 

The Cougars return their top two running backs — Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks — and add explosive former receiver Keith Harrington to the mix. Throw in the fact that WSU also returns all five starting offensive linemen, and it’s a good bet that the Cougars will run the ball a fair amount more this fall. In fact, while the Cougars have been exclusively a shotgun team since coach Mike Leach arrived at WSU in 2012, he says that the quarterbacks could be under center as often as 25 percent of the time in 2015, in part to give the running backs better angles.

On the one hand, the Cougars lose two of the most productive receivers in school history in Isiah Myers (78 catches, 12 touchdowns) and Biletnikoff Award semifinalist Vince Mayle (106 catches, 1,483 yards). But the Cougars will get back Gabe Marks, who redshirted last season after leading the Cougars in catches (74), yards (807) and tying for the team lead with seven touchdowns in 2013. Marks and playmaking receiver Dom Williams will start at the outside positions, while speedster Robert Lewis will be inside along with River Cracraft, who provides consistency and was a favorite target on third downs.

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 Washington State’s Defense for 2015

Defensive coordinator Mike Breske was dismissed during last season’s disappointing campaign. Leach hired Alex Grinch, the safeties coach at Missouri, to replace him. Grinch’s emphasis is on speed, and in spring practice the Cougars worked almost exclusively out of a nickel defense.

Defensive end Xavier Cooper left early for the NFL Draft, but replacing his five sacks is doable. Potentially more challenging will be finding a nose tackle to replace Kalafitoni Pole, WSU’s starter in the middle of the line the last two seasons. Making things more difficult, two of the true nose tackles on the roster, Robert Barber and Ngalu Tapa, both missed the spring with injuries.

Jeremiah Allison and Peyton Pelluer return to head the linebackers, of which typically there will be only two on the field at one time. Getting to the quarterback will be an emphasis for Grinch, and indications this spring were that the weak-side backer will spend a lot of time in opposing backfields.

Darius Lemora started 10 games at safety for the Cougars last year, and he will take over as the full-time nickel back. Marcellus Pippins and Charleston White each played well at times last year, and they will get looks at cornerback along with junior college transfer Treshon Broughton following the dismissal of Daquawn Brown, the team’s leading tackler. Sulaiman Hameed and Isaac Dotson were the starting safeties during spring practice, but four-star junior college signee Shalom Luani joins the mix this fall.
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Washington State’s Specialists in 2015 

Erik Powell lost his starting job to Quentin Breshears after hitting just 2-of-5 attempts to start the season, but it looks like the coaches will give him another shot. Since Jordan Dascalo left the team after starting each game as a freshman, Powell will have a chance to assume punting duties as well. Expect incoming freshman Matt Abramo to also figure into the mix.

Final Analysis

After making their first bowl game in a decade in 2013, the Cougars backslid last season. Experience and depth are still issues, but the hope in Pullman is that the coaching changes combined with an infusion of junior college talent will help this team get back to the postseason.

The Debate

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#65 Rutgers Scarlet Knights



Big Ten East Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Kyle Flood, 23-16 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Ben McDaniels | DEF. COORDINATOR: Joe Rossi

After Rutgers first season in the league, fans in the Big Ten still don’t know what to make of the Scarlet Knights. Kyle Flood got a lot out of his team last fall but enters his important fourth season with increased pressure and a rebuilt depth chart. In a brutal division, returning to a bowl game should be a reasonable goal.

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Previewing Rutgers’ Offense for 2015

Rutgers has had a revolving door for offensive coordinators, but the Scarlet Knights’ sixth play-caller in as many years isn’t expected to change things much from last season. Ben McDaniels spent last year as an apprentice to Ralph Friedgen, the longtime Maryland head coach who decided to retire after his one season calling plays for the Scarlet Knights. Under the 67-year-old Friedgen’s tutelage, Rutgers ranked seventh in the Big Ten in total offense, but McDaniels insists he won’t tinker much with the pro-style system this fall.

There is plenty of uncertainty at the quarterback position, where a pair of redshirt sophomores will compete for the right to replace four-year starter Gary Nova. Chris Laviano held a slight edge over LSU transfer Hayden Rettig in spring practice, but Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood figures to use the first few weeks of training camp before anointing either player as the starter. Whichever quarterback wins the job, he will have plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal, including a wide receiver — Leonte Carroo — who stiff-armed the NFL Draft to return for his senior campaign and one of the deepest backfields in the Big Ten. Paul James, Justin Goodwin, Josh Hicks, Robert Martin and Desmon Peoples have all started games for Flood, who figures to give James every opportunity to regain the starting nod after a knee injury derailed a promising campaign a year ago. 

Previewing Rutgers’ 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.

A step up in conference class resulted in Rutgers’ defense ranking near the bottom of every meaningful statistic in the Big Ten last season. In their first season under the direction of defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, the Scarlet Knights yielded a combined 180 points in losing to the league’s top four teams. A defensive unit that graduated six starters faces the same quartet again this season.

Darius Hamilton, a two-year starter at defensive tackle and returning captain, is the heart and soul of a unit that will look to shore up a run defense that ranked 106th nationally last season.

“From a talent standpoint, this might be one of the best defenses I’ve been around,’’ Hamilton says, pointing to an experienced secondary featuring cornerbacks Nadir Barnwell and Anthony Cioffi and a linebacker corps that includes returning starters Quentin Gause and Steve Longa. “This is a really talented group. I think the only After Rutgers first season in the league, fans in the Big Ten still don’t know what to make of the Scarlet Knights. Kyle Flood got a lot out of his team last fall but enters his important fourth season with increased pressure but a rebuilt depth chart. In a brutal division, returning to a bowl game should be a reasonable goal.

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

Previewing Rutgers’ Specialists for 2015

The Scarlet Knights have traditionally been a force on special teams, blocking more kicks (41) than any team in the country since the 2009 season. Kemoko Turay led the country with three blocked kicks last season, including a potential go-ahead field goal against Michigan. While Kyle Federico made 16-of-21 field goal attempts, the placekicking operation was plagued by some errant snaps from long snapper Alan Lucy, who will need to show improvement in his second season handling the job. Joe Roth and Tim Gleeson battled for the starting punting job throughout last season, and the result saw Rutgers rank fourth-worst among Big Ten teams in net punting. Gleeson holds a slight edge in the competition heading into training camp.

Final Analysis

No one expected life in the Big Ten to be easy for Rutgers, and losses to Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State by a combined 180–44 score showed that the Scarlet Knights have a long way to go before they can compete with the cream of the conference crop. Rutgers’ quest to reach a bowl game for the 10th time in 11 years will depend on whether Flood can find enough offense to compensate for a young defensive corps that figures to struggle against elite Big Ten competition once again.   

The Debate

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#63 UCF Knights



American Athletic East PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: George O'Leary, 81-60 (11 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brent Key | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Bresnahan

George O’Leary followed up his Fiesta Bowl victory with another nine wins for UCF in 2014. His Knights return just 10 starters on a team that consistently contends in the American Athletic Conference. Those thinking UCF takes a step back just because of a few key departures should be careful of O’Leary’s always tough Knights.

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Previewing UCF’s Offense for 2015

A year ago, UCF’s biggest question was who would replace Blake Bortles at quarterback. It took until the beginning of the season, but the staff found the answer in Justin Holman, who overcame early inconsistency to post a solid sophomore campaign, completing 223-of-392 passes for 2,952 yards with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Now with a year of experience, there’s a sense Holman is poised for a breakout season.

Holman will be complemented with experience in the backfield and offensive line. Running back William Stanback missed several games due to nagging injuries, but the junior still was named all-conference for the second consecutive year after rushing for 697 yards and 10 touchdowns.

All but one of the key linemen return, and coaches are hopeful they’ll get center/guard Joey Grant back at full strength after offseason shoulder surgery.

The glaring issue is at wide receiver, where UCF must replace virtually every key player from 2014. The departure list includes NFL early entry Breshad Perriman, last year’s No. 1 target and a 1,000-yard receiver. The most experienced returnee is Jordan Akins, a former minor league baseball player who caught only 12 passes a year ago. Redshirt freshman Tre’Quan Smith is perhaps the most talented of the group and was Holman’s favorite target during the spring. With the shortage of experience, it’s quite possible all three of the incoming receiver recruits will suit up to play.

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

Previewing UCF’s Defense for 2015

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In 2014, UCF finished fifth nationally in total defense (298.5 ypg) and ninth in scoring defense (19.2 ppg), but there are big shoes to fill with seven departing starters. The Knights must replace two of three linebacker starters and will have an entirely new secondary after graduating three seniors and seeing cornerback Jacoby Glenn, the 2014 AAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, declare early for the NFL Draft.

At cornerback, UCF does have several players who have been waiting in the wings, notably juniors Shaquill Griffin and D.J. Killings and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Kyle Gibson and Chris Williams, both of whom were among the most heralded signees of the 2014 recruiting class.

Coaches experimented with a mix of linebacker lineups during the spring, but there were always two constants: Chequan Burkett and Errol Clarke, who shared starting duties a season ago. Domenic Spencer, a senior who’s played a backup role his first three seasons, may get his chance to start.

The strength of the unit will be the defensive line, led by senior end Thomas Niles, who finished with a team-leading 7.5 sacks and 13.0 tackles for a loss in 2014. Coaches are confident in the middle with returning seniors Demetris Anderson and Lance McDowdell along with sophomore Jamiyus Pittman.

Previewing UCF’s Specialists for 2015

UCF will rely on redshirt freshman Matthew Wright to take over for Shawn Moffitt, perhaps the best kicker in program history. Wright was reliable during the spring and showed a strong leg.  Junior Caleb Houston is back at punter after averaging 38.9 yards on 54 punts. Return duties will be a battle that continues into the preseason. Akins has experience, and freshmen Chris Davis and Michael Rogers could factor into the mix.

Final Analysis  

Despite losing key players who helped the program clinch a share of its second consecutive American title in 2014, coach George O’Leary emphasizes that it’s a reload, not a rebuild. It’s hard to argue with O’Leary, who has averaged 9.4 wins over the past five seasons. Though there are question marks at certain positions, there’s an expectation that UCF has the talent to again be a contender for the conference title


#62 Temple Owls



American Athletic East PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Matt Rhule, 8-16 (2 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Marcus Satterfield | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Snow

Matt Rhule clearly knows what he’s doing at Temple. The Owls enter the 2015 season a contender in the American Athletic Conference East Division with 17 starters back from a team that won just as many games as it lost. If Rhule can find balance on both sides of the ball, Temple could make some serious noise in the AAC.

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Previewing Temple’s Offense for 2015

When true freshman P.J. Walker became the quarterback midway through 2013, the future looked to be in capable hands. But despite a strong start to 2014, he finished the season with 13 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. In the last seven games, those numbers were four and 11, respectively. It was hardly coincidental that the Owls lost five of those games.

Part of the problem was the line, which had injuries and lacked depth. The status of tackle Dion Dawkins was uncertain in the spring due to an off-campus altercation, but he appears on track to return in the fall. In addition to Dawkins, four players return who started at least nine games, and the line is anchored by senior center Kyle Friend, a three-year starter. The addition of three first-year guys who sat out last year should help.

The Owls also never found a replacement for wideout Robbie Anderson, who averaged 18 yards a catch with nine TDs in 2013. The hope is that Hawaii transfer Keith Kirkwood and/or redshirt freshman Ventell Bryant can emerge to fill that role.

Nobody rushed for more than 384 yards, and Walker was the second-leading rusher. But there’s no shortage of candidates to address the running game. Zaire Williams, whose 533 yards two years ago were the third-most ever by a Temple freshman, barely played in 2014 because of a back injury. David Hood, who played in only two games as a freshman, also has potential, as do three new recruits — four-star T.J. Simmons, who turned down an offer from UCLA; Jager Gardner, who holds the Western North Carolina career high school rushing record (6,955 yards); and Ryquell Armstead, who has drawn comparisons to former Owl Bernard Pierce.

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

Previewing Temple’s Defense for 2015

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This unit had trouble stopping anyone in 2013, especially late in games, which became a contributing factor in three close losses. Things turned around in 2014 as the Owls tied for fourth in the nation in points allowed (17.5 ppg). They also forced 30 turnovers, 17 more than the year before. Six of those were returned for scores, which was only one fewer than the previous four seasons combined.

And 10 starters return. Tyler Matakevich should become the program’s all-time leading tackler. He’s reached 100 in each of his first three seasons, becoming only the third Owl to accomplish that feat. And his 355 career stops are by far the most of any active NCAA player.

Coach Matt Rhule has touted end Praise Martin-Oguike and tackle Matt Ioannidis as future pros. The secondary, which for way too long was an area of concern, has been significantly upgraded in the last couple of years.

The most pressing question now is depth at linebacker. Avery Williams is a former running back/defensive back, and Stephaun Marshall is a converted free safety who can back up at all three spots.

Previewing Temple’s Specialists for 2015

Freshman Austin Jones made 13-of-22 field goals and had at least one miss in each of the last five games. But seeing as the Owls made just three field goals in 2013 (two in the final game), that was a big improvement. First-year punter Alex Starzyk was inconsistent. The Owls ran a punt back for a touchdown and scored two other times on blocks. Rhule wants to see more from his kickoff returns.

Final Analysis  

The Owls went from two wins in 2013 to six a year ago. There is reason to believe they can at least get back to a bowl game for the first time in four seasons, and a run at the American Athletic Conference East Division crown is not out of the question. To take that next step, the offense must produce as it did in Rhule’s debut season of 2013, and Temple must find what it takes to win more close games against better opponents.


#64 Illinois Fighting Illini





HEAD COACH: Tim Beckman , 12-25 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill Cubit | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tim Banks, Mike Phair

Tim Beckman’s teams have improved every year he’s been at Illinois. But an offseason fraught with negative headlines and a very difficult Big Ten schedule have raised questions about his long-term future with the Illini. A critical fourth season could go either direction for a team that has underachieved for the better part of a decade.

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Previewing Illinois’ Offense for 2015

It was supposed to be a smooth transition from four-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase to Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. It didn’t turn out that way. When Lunt was healthy in 2014, he was effective. But injuries forced him to miss five games. Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is happy to have Lunt back for his junior season. Lunt is in his third year working with Cubit at Illinois. He completed 64 percent of his passes in 2014 with 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.

“Physically, he looks better,” Cubit says. “He looks better in the pocket. He’s going to have to be real good for us to be good.”

Ask Cubit what is the strength of the offense, and he will quickly answer with a name: Josh Ferguson. The senior gained 735 yards and scored eight touchdowns on the ground in 2014. He had another 427 yards and two scores as a receiver.

Cubit’s job became more difficult on April 8. That’s when Mike Dudek, one of the top returning receivers in the Big Ten, suffered a torn ACL during a morning workout. He will be out until at least midseason. Geronimo Allison returns after finishing third on the team in 2014 with 41 catches. Cubit will need him to be a bigger part of the offense. He’ll need the same from sophomore Malik Turner.

Up front, depth is a big concern. Guard Ted Karras, the top returnee in 2015, missed the spring while recovering from surgery. He will be ready for training camp. The starting tackles appear set with Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt.

Previewing Illinois’ 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.

It has been awhile since Illinois had heated battles for starting spots at end and tackle. Back to the Ron Zook era. “Now we do,” coach Tim Beckman says. Senior end Jihad Ward is the best of an improving group. He is the leading returner in sacks (three) and tackles for a loss (8.5). Bad news for the Big Ten: Ward is better. Tackle Teko Powell is being counted on to anchor the middle. He missed the spring because of injury but is expected back.

The linebackers are growing up — in a good way. Having Mason Monheim back makes it easier for the coaches to sleep at night. T.J. Neal starts at middle linebacker. The Star position, a hybrid linebacker/safety, will be a training camp battle between James Crawford and Eric Finney.

V’Angelo Bentley returns at cornerback along with steady Eaton Spence. Taylor Barton is back at safety after finishing third on the team in tackles in 2014. Clayton Fejedelem made a late move in 2014 and will start at the other safety spot.

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

Previewing Illinois’ Specialists for 2015

Coordinator Alex Golesh is looking for consistency on field goals. David Reisner and Taylor Zalewski split the duties in 2014 with mediocre results. They missed 8-of-17 field-goal tries. The team has huge shoes to fill at punter after the graduation of Justin DuVernois, who averaged 44 yards per attempt. Ryan Frain and Reisner will compete for the starting punting position.  

Final Analysis

It is a simple question with a complicated answer: What does Beckman need to do to continue as Illinois football coach? The coach enters his fourth season with a 12–25 overall record and a 4–20 mark in the Big Ten. No doubt the team has improved during Beckman’s tenure. But the bar was set low with a 2–10 mark his first year. The Illini won four in 2013 and six in 2014. The fans demand more.

The schedule doesn’t help. The Illini travel to North Carolina and Iowa, while hosting Big Ten powerhouses Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Another bowl bid is doable, and six wins should keep Beckman at the school for at least another season. 

The Debate

Where Does Wes Lunt Rank Among Big Ten QBs?

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#61 Virginia Cavaliers





HEAD COACH: Mike London, 23-38 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Fairchild | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jon Tenuta

Mike London enters his sixth season at Virginia squarely on the hot seat for the third consecutive season. The Cavaliers showed improvement last year, winning four of their first six games but struggled badly in ACC play over the second half of the season. In a wide-open Coastal Division, a postseason berth for Virginia and London may be the only thing that saves his job.

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Previewing Virginia’s Offense for 2015

Virginia has settled on an identity and style of play. And now, the Cavaliers can settle on a quarterback. Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns were competing through the spring. Lambert started nine games a year ago but wasn’t able to separate himself from Johns, who started three games when Lambert was hurt and played in all 12. Lambert decided to transfer in May, leaving Johns as the clear No. 1 quarterback this season. At 6'5", Johns is a tall-in-the-saddle type seemingly suited for a pro-style offense that seeks to emphasize the running game. Johns needs to be more accurate and less mistake-prone than a year ago, when the two Virginia quarterbacks combined for 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

Virginia ranked 97th nationally in rushing offense in 2014. Hopes of being a power-running team rest on an offensive line that was banged up last year and did a good job in pass protection but struggled to open holes on the ground. The upside is that 10 players with game experience are back, including seven who have been starters at some point.

The graduation of tailback Kevin Parks creates an opportunity for former five-star recruit Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, a potentially dynamic player who has shown only flashes of that talent in two seasons. If the Cavaliers can establish the running game, they feel good about their chances of taking shots down field, with an experienced corps of receivers that includes senior Canaan Severin, and North Carolina transfer T.J. Thorpe.

Previewing Virginia’s Defense for 2015

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A big chunk of Virginia’s pass rush left early for the NFL. Junior defensive end Eli Harold and sophomore linebacker Max Valles, who combined for 16 sacks and 27 tackles for a loss, are both gone, as is senior linebacker Henry Coley and his eight sacks.

Given those losses, it’s difficult to envision the Cavaliers being as disruptive again, even in a scheme designed to create havoc with blitzes and stunts.

The strength of the unit should be on the back end, where safety Quin Blanding, a Freshman All-American, should only get better, and where the return of cornerback Demetrious Nicholson from a turf toe injury adds to an already deep secondary.

Up front, tackle David Dean anchors a group that ranked 18th nationally against the run. Though not the speed rusher that Harold was, end Mike Moore had three sacks and will be counted on to bring heat from the edge. After an injury-plagued freshman year, former five-star recruit Andrew Brown is being counted on for a breakout season at tackle.

The linebacking corps must replace three starters, meaning the heart of the defense will be young. Expect a true freshman or two on the two-deep.

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

Previewing Virginia’s Specialists for 2015

Given Virginia’s inability to finish in the red zone, kicker Ian Frye was busy last year, hitting 22-of-27 field-goal attempts. Punter Alec Vozenilek was a valuable weapon and will be missed. Thorpe, the North Carolina transfer, is a former All-ACC returner who could bring some needed sizzle to the return game. 

Final Analysis

Coach Mike London is no stranger to the hot seat. He’s been under a cloud for three seasons. Last year’s improvement from 2–10 to 5–7 was encouraging to a point. But a second-half fade after a 4–2 start raised old questions about the team’s inability to finish close games under London.

Last year’s progress earned London a last chance. Nothing short of a bowl game appearance is likely to keep him around. With the usual questions on offense and big shoes to fill on defense — as well as another brutal non-conference schedule — Virginia has a lot to overcome for that to happen. Too much, probably. 

The Debate

Is Taquan Mizzell Primed for a Breakout Season?

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#80 Northern Illinois Huskies





HEAD COACH: Rod Carey, 23-6 (2+ years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bob Cole | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jay Niemann

Northern Illinois reigned supreme in the MAC in 2014, although a blowout loss to Marshall in the Boca Raton Bowl ended last season on a disappointing note. The path to the MAC West division crown figures to go through the Huskies once again this fall, as Rod Carey's team returns 14 starters from a team that is used to winning. Northern Illinois is in search of its sixth straight division crown and its fourth MAC championship in the past five years.

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Previewing Northern Illinois’ Offense for 2015


Northern Illinois has remained one of the best offensive units in the MAC through several coaching changes over the last decade. The offense should keep on piling up points and yardage in 2015, but it will have a slightly different look.

Unlike last season, there won’t be any uncertainty at quarterback. Drew Hare won a three-player competition with his performance in the second half of a win at Northwestern in Week 2. Hare doesn’t possess the running ability of past stars Jordan Lynch or Chandler Harnish, but he completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and threw 18 touchdowns with just two interceptions.

“He’s a completely different quarterback,” NIU coach Rod Carey says. “He has the confidence of knowing he’s the quarterback.”

The offense should be more pass-heavy because of the athleticism and depth at wide receiver. Senior Tommylee Lewis, who had 86 receptions in 2013, is back after missing most of last season with a toe injury. Senior Juwan Brescacin is a big-play threat, junior Chad Beebe is a solid possession receiver and North Dakota transfer Kenny Golladay’s size makes him an instant red-zone threat.

The Huskies’ success on offense usually hinges on their ability to run the ball and the development of the line. They finished 16th in the country in rushing offense last season, averaging 249.1 yards per game, but they must replace running backs Cameron Stingily and Akeem Daniels. Northern Illinois will employ a committee approach, with Keith Harris Jr., Joel Bouagnon, Draco Smith and Jordan Huff splitting carries early in the season.

Questions surround the offensive line as center Andrew Ness and left guard Aidan Conlon are the lone returning starters.  Right guard Josh Ruka, right tackle Lincoln Howard and left tackle Levon Myers all gained valuable experience as reserves last season.

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

Previewing Northern Illinois’ Defense for 2015

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While eight starters return from a unit that finished 51st in the country in scoring defense, the Huskies must replace defensive end Jason Meehan and free safety Dechane Durante, although the core of a defense that forced 24 takeaways and registered 32 sacks last season is mostly back. Up front, the Huskies need defensive ends Cameron Clinton-Earl and Perez Ford to apply pressure. Rasheen Lemon, the second-leading tackler last season, headlines a solid group of linebackers.

The secondary is a position of strength, with three starters back from a unit that picked off the majority of the 14 interceptions last season. Strong safety Marlon Moore, who led the Huskies with 99 tackles, is the anchor, and all-conference cornerback Paris Logan is a proven defender.

Previewing Northern Illinois’ Specialists for 2015


Kicker Christian Hagan emerged late last season to become a reliable option. Redshirt freshman punter Peter Deppe is the leading candidate to take over for Tyler Wedel. The return game could use an upgrade after finishing 91st on kickoff returns and 74th on punt returns.

Final Analysis


Despite the Huskies’ loss of most of their playmakers on offense and top sack specialist, the road to the MAC West title still goes through Northern Illinois. The offense has the potential to be formidable again with a solid group of running backs, an explosive corps of receivers and Hare benefiting from a full offseason as the starting quarterback. Defensively, the Huskies are solid in the secondary with a few spots to fill at linebacker and along the defensive line.

The Huskies have lost three straight bowl games, including a 52–23 blowout loss to Marshall in the Boca Raton Bowl last season. Carey is not shying away from using that as motivation. The conference schedule is favorable for a run at a sixth straight West title and fourth conference championship in five years.


#79 Vanderbilt Commodores





HEAD COACH: Derek Mason, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Andy Ludwig | DEF. COORDINATOR: Derek Mason

Derek Mason's tenure at Vanderbilt got off to a rough start, as the Commodores won just three games overall and went 0-8 in the SEC last season. With a year under his belt and some coaching staff changes, Mason is hoping for more success in Year 2, but the life in the SEC is never easy, especially for an offense that was among the worst in the nation in 2014.

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Previewing Vanderbilt’s Offense for 2015


Vanderbilt’s offensive issues were well chronicled throughout the 2014 season. The Commodores ranked last in the SEC in both total offense and scoring offense by a wide margin and ranked in the bottom 10 in the nation in both categories as well. Perhaps the most troubling stat? The fact that Vanderbilt scored only nine offensive touchdowns in its eight SEC games.

Coach Derek Mason addressed the offensive issues shortly after the season by firing Karl Dorrell and hiring Andy Ludwig to run the Commodores’ attack. Ludwig’s first order of business is to identify a quarterback between holdovers Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck. Both started multiple games last year; neither played well enough to stake a claim as the no-doubt-about-it starter entering 2015.

The Commodores are thin at tailback but are in good shape at the top of the depth chart. Ralph Webb, who rushed for 912 yards as a redshirt freshman, impressed Ludwig during the spring. C.J. Duncan, a former high school quarterback, headlines a talented young corps of wide receivers. Keep an eye on sophomore Trent Sherfield and redshirt freshman Ronald Monroe. Tight end Steven Scheu, the team’s top pass-catcher in 2014, suffered a broken leg in the spring. His return for Week 1 is in doubt.

A veteran offensive line was expected to be a team strength in 2014. That, however, was not the case. There were other issues, of course, but the Commodores averaged a league-worst 3.4 yards per carry and struggled to protect the quarterbacks. Mason is confident that this group, which returns four starters, can rebound.

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

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Defense for 2015

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About a month after he fired defensive coordinator David Kotulski, Mason named himself as the Commodores’ new defensive coordinator. “I am loving it,” he said during the spring. “I don’t know why I ever gave it up. Probably best decision I have made is to come back and run the defense.”

The defensive line is home to three of the most talented players on the roster — ends/tackles Adam Butler and Caleb Azubike and nose guard Nifae Lealao — but this unit is still a work in progress.

Stephen Weatherly proved to be an ideal fit as pass-rushing outside linebacker in the new scheme, leading the team in both tackles for a loss (12.5) and sacks (4.5). Inside linebacker Nigel Bowden was as good as advertised as a redshirt freshman, leading the team with 78 tackles despite battling various injuries. Josh Smith, the prize of the 2015 recruiting class, is considered a natural inside linebacker but might have an easier time finding early playing time on the outside.

The Commodores struggled in pass defense — allowing a league-high 7.6 yards per attempt and intercepting only six passes — due in part to inconsistent play from the cornerback position. Junior Torren McGaster is entrenched as one of the starters, but the other spot is wide open. 

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Specialists for 2015


Kicker Tommy Openshaw was solid in his first season, hitting 8-of-11, including all six from under 40 yards. Colby Cooke averaged 42.4 yards per punt, but the Commodores ranked last in the SEC and 86th nationally in net punting with a 36.2-yard average.

Final Analysis


It’s difficult to put a positive spin on Mason’s first year as a head coach. Coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons, Vanderbilt slumped to 3–9 overall and failed to win a game in the SEC. Mason’s second Vanderbilt team should be improved, thanks in part to more experience on both sides of the ball and upgrades on the coaching staff. But the Commodores will have to be drastically better, especially on offense, to make a move in the SEC East, where seemingly every program — with the possible exception of South Carolina — is on the uptick.


#78 Bowling Green Falcons





HEAD COACH: Dino Babers, 8-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Lynch, Sean Lewis | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian Ward

Dino Babers won eight games in his first season at Bowling Green, led the Falcons to their second straight MAC East title and first bowl victory in a decade, but his team enters 2015 with even loftier goals in mind. An experienced offense welcomes back just about every key contributor, while five starters return on a defense that finished near the bottom in every major category. If the offense continues to produce and the defense rebounds, Bowling Green could be a MAC champion once again.

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Previewing Bowling Green’s Offense for 2015


It is hard to hide the wealth on this unit, so the Falcons won’t try. They have two quarterbacks with extensive starting experience. Matt Johnson, who started 13 games two years ago but suffered a season-ending injury in last year’s opener, returns healthy. The backup is the MVP from last year’s Camellia Bowl win, James Knapke, who also led the team to eight wins and a second straight MAC East title after Johnson’s injury.

The Falcons quarterbacks have plenty of viable targets, as the top four receivers return. Roger Lewis was a first team all-conference selection a year ago when he was the first freshman in school history to reach the 1,000-yard receiving mark. Veteran Chris Gallon, who missed last season due to injury, and Baylor transfer Robbie Rhodes also join a veteran group.

Running back Travis Greene has put up almost 2,600 yards rushing and scored 26 total touchdowns over the past two seasons and accounted for a pair of scores in the Camellia Bowl victory. The key to it all on offense for the Falcons is likely their considerable strength up front. Bowling Green had the same five linemen start all 14 games a year ago, and they all return. This solid group is led by guard Alex Huettel, a two-time all-conference choice. 

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

Previewing Bowling Green’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.

The Falcons took a significant graduation hit on this side of the ball. Seven starters are gone from last year’s unit that struggled more than intermittently, allowing the opposition 33.5 points and nearly 500 yards of offense per game. This is a major area of concern, since a mediocre defense just got a whole lot younger and less experienced.

Bowling Green lacked an intimidating pass rush last season (just 28 sacks), and the top four ends are gone, along with two linebackers, both safeties and one cornerback. Zach Colvin, Taylor Royster and Mike Minns should man the interior line posts, with Bryan Baird and Bryan Thomas expected to see plenty of time at end.

James Sanford, Nate Locke and Austin Valdez have all seen time at linebacker in their careers, with Sanford the most experienced of the group. On the back end of the defense, corner Darrell Hunter had eight starts last season, while Clint Stephens intercepted four passes while seeing plenty of playing time as true freshmen in 2014.

Previewing Bowling Green’s Specialists for 2015


Expect this to be a very strong area for the Falcons. Placekicker Tyler Tate is back after booting 23 field goals (in 29 attempts) last season. Punter Joseph Davidson also returns after setting records for attempts and punt yardage in 2014, when he knocked 14 punts 50 or more yards. Long snapper Greg Hohenstein adds further experience and continuity to the group.

Final Analysis


How the expectations have changed. The Falcons won at least eight games for the third straight season, claimed a second consecutive MAC East crown and won their first bowl game in a decade — but it wasn’t enough to reach the team’s lofty goals.

When coach Dino Babers and his fast-paced, high-powered offense arrived following the MAC championship season of 2013, visions of 50 points per game and another league title were prevalent. For 2015, Babers has the personnel to pull off that kind of explosive scoring. The Falcons have just about everyone back on an offense that should be among the best in the league. The young and inexperienced defense is suspect, however. Babers will be plugging holes with players he hopes possess the skill set to solidify the defense. If that happens, this should be a championship-caliber team that once again flirts with fulfilling those lofty expectations.