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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.

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Previewing NC State’s Offense for 2015
 

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

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

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

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

#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.

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

Previewing Florida’s Defense for 2015
 

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

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

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

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

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.

The Debate

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

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Athlon Archive: Chris Spielman - Not Ruthless, Just Realistic

The legendary Ohio State linebacker describes his style in this 1985 feature
Athlon Archive: Chris Spielman - Not Ruthless, Just Realistic

Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman was one of the most feared linebackers of his day, winning the 1987 Lombardi Award and earning consensus All-America honors in 1986-87. The decorated recruit made an immediate impression as a freshman in 1984, with a style described as “brutality” after his debut against Oregon State.

 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#1 Ohio State Buckeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#1

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Urban Meyer, 38-3 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Beck, Ed Warinner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Ash, Luke Fickell

Ohio State opens 2015 as the favorite to repeat as college football’s national champion. Winning back-to-back titles is no easy assignment, but coach Urban Meyer’s team is loaded with proven talent. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is a Heisman contender, and there’s no shortage of options at quarterback. The defense is also one of the best in the nation.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Ohio State’s Offense for 2015


Urban Meyer teams move the ball and score — and that has only trended upward in Columbus.

The Buckeyes should be explosive once again as they return three accomplished quarterbacks, star running back Ezekiel Elliott, four starters along the offensive line (including All-Big Ten candidates Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein), useful tight end Nick Vannett, and a bevy of speedsters who can catch the ball.

The best of that lot is wideout Michael Thomas, who hauled in a team-best 54 passes for 799 yards and nine scores last season. The coaches want to get even more use out of Jalin Marshall and will really be able to put pressure on foes if burner Dontre Wilson can bounce back from a fractured foot.

Elliott is lined up for a monster year. The junior could approach 2,000 yards rushing — and Heisman finalist status. OSU also has another backfield weapon in Curtis Samuel, while true freshman Mike Weber could prove he deserves to see the field as well.

Ohio State’s trio of standout QBs — Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett — is an embarrassment of riches but raises lots of questions as to who is most deserving of the starting job. Miller is the most accomplished, Barrett the best game manager and Jones, or “12 Gauge” as he’s known, possesses the strongest arm. All of them can hurt defenses with their feet, making this unit even more lethal.

Related: Ohio State All-Time Athlon Sports Cover Gallery
 

Previewing Ohio 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.

Ohio State wasn’t impenetrable last season, but the Buckeyes were pretty darn good at slowing teams down. Opponents averaged just 5.0 yards per play, 3.9 per rush and converted just a third of a their third-down plays. Plus, the Buckeyes racked up 45 sacks and scored six defensive touchdowns.

Key starters return up front, in the linebacking corps and at safety with defensive end Joey Bosa, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, the headliner. Bosa is a headache for offensive linemen and quarterbacks. Most teams try to stay away from him completely or double-team him with regularity. Tackle Adolphus Washington will counter some of that tactic. He’s also hard to keep out of the backfield.

If Ohio State adequately replaces departed lineman Michael Bennett, the linebackers should prosper. Joshua Perry is coming off a 124-tackle season on the outside and will be the leader of the defense. Darron Lee is a big-play performer, and middle backer Raekwon McMillan is perhaps the team’s biggest hitter.

Eli Apple is the Buckeyes’ top corner with Doran Grant out the door. He’s capable of big things. Safety is in experienced hands with Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell.

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

Previewing Ohio State’s Specialists for 2015 


All the key elements return to the specialty units, and the Buckeyes have plenty of speed and athleticism from which to choose as they formulate their new kick cover and return teams. Sean Nuernberger is coming off a solid year at placekicker, although he hasn’t attempted many pressure field goals. Power-legged Cameron Johnston is one of the Big Ten’s best punters at pinning opponents deep. Marshall is a weapon on punt returns but has a knack for making every one of them interesting.

Final Analysis


Last season was supposed to be the transition year for the Buckeyes. Instead, they blitzed through the Big Ten again, reached another level during the postseason and won the inaugural College Football Playoff. Now with seven returning starters entrenched on both sides of the ball, talent in all areas and a title under their belts, the Buckeyes’ challenge is to find a way to maintain an edge. Fortunately, they’ve got one of the game’s top motivators under the headset. 

The Debate

Is Urban Meyer College Football's No. 1 Coach?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#2 Alabama Crimson Tide

NATIONAL FORECAST

#2

SEC West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Nick Saban, 91-17 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lane Kiffin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kirby Smart

Alabama is loaded for another run at college football’s national championship. Sure, the Crimson Tide has a few holes to address on both sides of the ball, but coach Nick Saban’s roster is loaded with talent, and the defense should be among the best in the nation if the secondary is solidified. Finding a replacement for receiver Amari Cooper and a new starting quarterback are the top priorities for Saban this offseason.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Alabama’s Offense for 2015 


It’s been a long time since Alabama’s been forced to replace so much of its offense. The single-season passing record holder (Blake Sims), the top three receivers (Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones) and the school’s No. 4 all-time leading rusher (T.J. Yeldon) are gone. Oh, and three of the five starting linemen depart as well. So Lane Kiffin has a steep challenge in his second season as the Tide’s offensive coordinator.

The good news for Alabama? Its been stockpiling No. 1 recruiting classes, so there are plenty of talented players ready to take on leading roles. The biggest question, however, remains with the most important position: Who will be the starting quarterback? Continuity was lacking in spring as five scholarship QBs competed without a sure No. 1 emerging. Jake Coker will head into fall camp the leading candidate, but redshirt freshman David Cornwell emerged late in the spring as a viable option.

Former high school All-Americans Chris Black and Robert Foster appear primed to emerge as the top options in the passing game, and incoming freshman Calvin Ridley has a chance to be the next great playmaker at receiver.

The biggest threat, again, resides in the backfield. Derrick Henry, at 6’3”, 242 pounds, will be the feature back after two seasons sharing the role. The long-strider has an almost surprising second gear considering his size. Kenyan Drake returns from his horrifying broken leg suffered Oct. 4 at Ole Miss. The burst was back in the spring for the fastest member of Alabama’s backfield whose versatility will be utilized in the passing game again this fall.

Previewing Alabama’s Defense for 2015 

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

With inexperience on offense, the burden will be on Kirby Smart’s defense. The strength will be the front seven. Alabama’s line is as deep and as talented as it’s been in years with starters A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen back. They’re big but mobile enough to face the fast-paced, spread offenses that have become common in the SEC.

Inside linebacker Reggie Ragland turned down the NFL to play his final season in Tuscaloosa. His 95 tackles were second behind only Landon Collins last year. Former top recruit Reuben Foster is a big hitter and could join him in the middle of the defense this fall after proving his value on special teams.

The secondary was an issue late last season and will be without Collins and Nick Perry, the starting safeties. Competition at the position will continue through August with Geno Smith, Hootie Jones, Ronnie Harrison and Maurice Smith in the hunt. There’s experience at corner. Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Bradley Sylve and Tony Brown each have starting experience, but this group needs to play better in 2014.

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

Previewing Alabama’s Specialists for 2015 


Punter JK Scott broke out as one of the nation’s elite as a true freshman. His 48.0-yard average included 23 of 55 tries traveling more than 50 yards. His ability to impact field position could be crucial with an inexperienced offense. Kicker Adam Griffith’s consistency suffered when back problems surfaced in October. After making his first seven kicks last fall, Griffith made just 5-of-12 to close the season.

Final Analysis 


Alabama
hasn’t lost a season-opener since 2001, but a date with Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas, will be a stout test with an uncertain offense. Establishing a No. 1 quarterback early in August will be crucial for developing chemistry with inexperienced receivers. On defense, the front seven should help Alabama retain its reputation among the nation’s most imposing units. But it’ll have to plug the leaks in the secondary that created major issues against Auburn and in the Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State.

The Debate

Is Derrick Henry the SEC's Best Running Back?

Click here to join the debate.




Athlon Archive: Orlando Pace - The Pancake Man

Ohio State great Orlando Pace was only getting started at the time of this 1996 feature
Athlon Archive: Orlando Pace - The Pancake Man

After the 1995 season, Ohio State tackle Orlando Pace had only scratched the surface of his potential — and at that point he was already a Lombardi Award winner and blocker for a Heisman Trophy recipient. Pace would finish his career as a two-time unanimous All-American, a Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, a top-four finisher for the Heisman Trophy and a likely Pro Football Hall of Famer.

 

Athlon Archive: Craig Krenzel is a Buckeye Bedrock

Krenzel ushered in Ohio State's return to powerhouse status with the 2002 national title
Athlon Archive: Craig Krenzel is a Buckeye Bedrock

Ohio State’s return to year-in and year-out dominance in the early 2000s was led by the most unlikely of quarterbacks. After a brief audition in 2001, Craig Krenzel became the starting quarterback in 2002. Despite modest numbers, Krenzel led Ohio State to a BCS championship and Fiesta Bowl MVP honors for the Buckeyes’ first national championship in more than 30 years.

 

College Football's 10 Most Intriguing September Non-Conference Matchups of 2015

Connor Cook and the Spartans will get their chance at revenge when they host Oregon on Sept. 12
College Football's 10 Most Intriguing Non-Conference Matchups of 2015

Long before we get to those bitter border and in-state conference wars that have come to define college football, we deal with a slate of non-conference games that, in many years, leave something to be desired.

 

In 2015, however, there are some pretty interesting matchups during the first month of the season that hardcore college football fans should definitely consider must-see TV.

 

Here are the 10 most intriguing non-conference matchups of the 2015 college football season.

 

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