#94 Ball State Cardinals





HEAD COACH: Pete Lembo, 30-20 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joey Lynch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Kelly

Ball State returns 17 starters from last season's team that finished strong, winning four of its final six games. The Cardinals hope to be a factor in the MAC West again, but will have to do so without its top playmaker from a year ago. Pete Lembo will rely on a veteran offensive line and improving defense as Ball State looks to get back to a bowl game this season.

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Previewing Ball State’s Offense for 2015


For the second year in a row, Ball State must adjust after losing one of its all-time great skill-position players. While the Cardinals struggled last season to find a successor for quarterback Keith Wenning, they’re in a better position this fall to handle the graduation of tailback Jahwan Edwards (4,558 career rushing yards, 51 TDs).

Coach Pete Lembo believes the tag team of bulked-up junior Teddy Williamson, scatback sophomore Darian Green and prized freshman James Gilbert will handle the load, even though they’ve combined for 328 yards and one touchdown to date. “We’ve got a veteran offensive line and tight ends,” Lembo says. “We expect our running backs to step in and be productive.”

Not only do the Cardinals welcome back all of their starting linemen and top three tight ends, they also retain the two quarterbacks who split last season and all of their wide receivers. Sophomore Jack Milas began last season as junior Ozzie Mann’s backup, but the coaches decided to make a change at quarterback after Ball State’s 1–4 start. Milas jumped in and threw for 326 yards and four scores in his first start. But he endured some growing pains, as well as literal pain when he broke his wrist in Week 11. Mann led the Cards to a season-ending win at Bowling Green, but Milas keeps the starting job. He has two All-MAC receivers in Jordan Williams (second team) and KeVonn Mabon (third team), but don’t be surprised if sophomores Corey Lacanaria and Jordan Hogue produce just as much.

Center Jacob Richard, a third-team all-league pick the last two seasons, spearheads a line that boasts 101 career starts.

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

Previewing Ball State’s Defense for 2015

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During league play last season, Ball State’s defense ranked among the MAC’s bottom four in all the major categories. While the Cardinals dealt with some extenuating circumstances — free safety Dae’Shaun Hurley tore his ACL in Week 1, third-team All-MAC cornerback Eric Patterson went out for the year in Week 9 — it’s fair to say injuries weren’t the sole cause of their relative ineffectiveness.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Lembo says. “We started off pretty solid. Once the injuries started piling up, it really took its toll on us. A lot of guys were thrown in ahead of their time.”

Ball State welcomes back seven starters, including all but one member of the front seven. The Cardinals managed just 16 sacks last year, so they’re looking for more from senior defensive tackle Darnell Smith (4.0 sacks) and senior rush end Michael Ayers (2.0 sacks).

Senior weak-side linebacker Ben Ingle was a second-team all-league pick in 2013 but produced 29 fewer tackles last fall and received no honors. He and junior middle linebacker Zack Ryan have the capability to deliver more. Hurley’s solid rehab suggests he’ll be ready at free safety, while sophomore Dedrick Cromartie, who stepped up after the injuries, shifts to strong safety.

“The key here is to build more depth and more cohesiveness,” Lembo says.

Previewing Ball State’s Specialists for 2015


MAC Special Teams Player of the Year Scott Secor has graduated, leaving true freshman Morgan Hagee and junior walk-on Alex Egan battling to be the kicker. Junior punter Kyle Schmidt posted a 41.5-yard average in his first two years.

Final Analysis


Blessed with 17 returning starters from a group that won four of its final six games, Ball State ought to be able to shrug off last year’s step back and be a factor in the tough MAC West. The key is how Milas grows into the starting quarterback role. “I’m not going to say he has arrived by any means,” Lembo says, “but he’s more comfortable out there.”


#93 Texas State Bobcats





HEAD COACH: Dennis Franchione, 36-34 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Conway, Mike Schultz | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Thompson

Despite picking up seven wins, Texas State did not receive a bowl invite last season. The Bobcats could be in the same position in 2015, as Dennis Franchione welcomes back 12 starters, including his key playmakers on offense. If the offense can carry the team early and the defense finds it footing, Texas State could force its way into the bowl conversation this season.

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Previewing Texas State’s Offense for 2015

A year removed from one of the biggest changes Texas State head coach Dennis Franchione has made during his second stint in San Marcos, the Bobcats are in a much better position on offense. Texas State’s switch to an up-tempo attack last season paid dividends for the Bobcats, who improved in most statistical categories. Texas State averaged 77 plays per game last season (up from 64 in 2013), racked up 33.8 points per game (23.9 in 2013) and amassed 464.3 yards of total offense per game (326.3 in 2013). “The balance we had was great,” Franchione says. “I felt like the plan we devised in the offseason was a good one. The numbers seem to bear that out.”

With junior quarterback Tyler Jones and senior tailback Robert Lowe back in the fold, Texas State could be poised to take another leap on offense. What could hold the Bobcats back this season, however, are some unknowns, especially at wide receiver.

Senior slot receiver C.J. Best turned in a breakthrough campaign last season, but Texas State needs more from wideouts Brandon Smith, Demun Mercer and Jafus Gaines to become an elite offense in the Sun Belt. 

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

Previewing Texas State’s Defense for 2015

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The Bobcats experienced just as much upheaval — if not more — on this side of the ball last season as John Thompson brought a new scheme to Franchione’s team. While this season will mark Year 2 under Thompson, Texas State experienced plenty of turnover in the offseason: Thompson lost his four best defenders, including linebacker David Mayo, who was named the Sun Belt’s Defensive Player of the Year.

If the Bobcats are going to find a groove, it will likely come down to the front seven. Texas State has targeted its defensive line as an area it must strengthen to compete against the likes of Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and UL Lafayette. With that in mind, the Bobcats will look for the emergence of sophomore Jeff Banks and junior Roosevelt Pearson as edge rushers and senior Mershad Dillon as a run stopper in the middle.

Even so, Texas State could be in line for an uphill battle on defense, especially early in the season, as Thompson tries to find the right mix of players. The Bobcats have to find someone to replace Mayo, which figures to be a difficult task when you consider that the linebacker had a monster season despite not having a consistent running mate alongside him to provide support. 

Previewing Texas State’s Specialists for 2015

A stellar campaign from kicker/punter Will Johnson notwithstanding, special teams were a mess for Texas State last season. And with Johnson out of the mix (he exhausted his eligibility), the Bobcats will head into this season with a bevy of unanswered questions when it comes to special teams. Texas State inked James Sherman before last season and added Lumi Kaba in its most recent recruiting class. At the moment, it appears that Sherman will take over punting duties, while Kaba will be the Bobcats’ placekicker. Look for this unit to be a work in progress. 

Final Analysis 

Texas State has been knocking on the door for a bowl game during the past two seasons. In fact, the Bobcats were the only 7–5 bowl-eligible team not to receive a postseason invite last season. To secure its first bowl berth in program history, Texas State will likely ask its offense to carry the torch early in the hope that its defense will flourish toward the end of the season. The Bobcats have a favorable home schedule but must face league powers Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and UL Lafayette on the road. If Texas State can sweep its home slate and steal one or two games on the road, Franchione’s team should finally bust down the bowl door.


#92 UMass Minutemen





HEAD COACH: Mark Whipple, 52-35 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mark Whipple | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Masella

With just five wins in three seasons on the FBS level, could this be the year UMass takes a big step forward? The Minutemen return 18 starters, as Mark Whipple's team hopes to secure the program's first bowl appearance since 1972.

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Previewing UMass’ Offense for 2015


Before coach Mark Whipple and quarterback Blake Frohnapfel arrived, the Minutemen had the 12th-ranked passing attack in the MAC in 2013. The arrival of the coach-quarterback tandem elevated the Minutemen to the No. 1 passing offense in the conference. Frohnapfel, a transfer from Marshall, led the league with 334.5 passing yards per game. He threw 23 touchdowns with 10 interceptions before missing the last two games with a broken leg.

Frohnapfel is healthy again for his senior season and will lead an offense that loses tight end Jean Sifrin but not much else. Rodney Mills moves from H-back, where he was a reliable receiving threat, to take over for Sifrin at tight end. Senior wideout Tajae Sharpe, who caught 85 passes for 1,281 yards and seven touchdowns, figures to be one of the MAC’s top receivers again.

Running back is the biggest offensive question for the Minutemen. They return four backs who started at least one game last year, but nobody could stay healthy or consistent enough to hold onto the job. Shadrach Abrokwah, who worked his way from walk-on freshman in 2013 to starter a year ago, will likely get first crack at the job. He rushed for 578 yards on 122 carries in eight games. Jamal Wilson, who was UMass’ No. 1 back before tearing up his knee in September, will certainly be in the mix as well.

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

Previewing UMass’ Defense for 2015

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UMass returns nine of 11 starters from a unit whose statistics were slightly tainted by the amount of time it spent on the field.

Jovan Santos-Knox, who was second in the MAC with 11.9 tackles per game last year, takes over middle linebacker responsibilities from Stanley Andre, who graduated. The return of Shane Huber, who missed all of 2014 with a knee injury, should help defray the impact of Andre’s departure at inside linebacker.

UMass struggled to get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks last year. It’s hoped that outside linebackers Kassan Messiah and Trey Seals can add to last season’s 5.5 combined sacks.

All-conference cornerback Randall Jette leads a secondary that needs to cut down on big plays allowed. Trey Dudley-Giles, who moved between safety and corner last season, should be at corner full time, while UAB transfer Kelton Brackett will likely get a chance to make an immediate impact.

The Minutemen’s inexperience and smallish stature on the defensive line was exposed at times last year when they played against bigger, more veteran offensive lines. They’ll get bigger with 307-pound Robert Kitching taking over at nose tackle. UMass is counting on junior Peter Angeh and sophomore Sha-Ki Holines to improve with a year of added experience under their belts.

Previewing UMass’ Specialists for 2015


UMass tried three placekickers over the course of 2014, and none of them earned any trust. True freshman Michael Caggiano, a high school record-setter in New Jersey, will get every chance to win the job. Logan Laurent takes over at punter hoping to improve on the Minutemen’s struggles there. UMass was 12th in the MAC in punting average (37.1).

Final Analysis


UMass won just one game in each of its first two FBS seasons. Last year it jumped up to three wins and nearly had more as a play or two might have changed the results of several games. With most of last year’s team returning, the Minutemen have a chance to take a significant step forward. It’s a critical year for UMass, which is leaving the MAC after the season for an undetermined stretch as an Independent. It’s hoped that a strong year capped by UMass’ first bowl appearance since 1972 might pique the interest of a conference willing to offer permanent membership.


#91 Nevada Wolf Pack





HEAD COACH: Brian Polian , 11-14 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Nick Rolovich | DEF. COORDINATOR: Scott Boone

Nevada returned to the postseason in Brian Polian's second season at the helm. Now the challenge for the Wolf Pack will be to maintain that same level of success with uncertainty at quarterback, along the offensive line and at wide receiver. Can the defense, which returns five starters in the front seven, carry Nevada back to a bowl game?

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Previewing Nevada’s Offense for 2015  

With three primary starters in 11 years, Nevada has had uncommon stability at quarterback. Who’s next? Well, that remains an open question.

Junior Tyler Stewart is the modest favorite in a three-way competition to start the season. Stewart is the only quarterback with college game experience on the Nevada roster, completing 21-of-37 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns in his career. But Stewart lacks the mobility that has become the calling card of Nevada quarterbacks in the Pistol offense.

He could cede the position to either sophomore Danté Mayes, who has plenty of mobility and impressed during spring workouts, or redshirt freshman Hunter Fralick. Fralick was a prized local recruit last year, and the dual-threat might have the highest upside of the three.

Even with Cody Fajardo, the passing game struggled at times last year, averaging 99 yards per game during a 1–2 finish. Part of that can be attributed to the loss of Hasaan Henderson, a big-bodied receiver whose season ended with a scary head and spinal concussion. But the all-conference candidate is healthy and appears ready to lead a receiving unit that has just three upperclassmen.

Don Jackson, who amassed 957 yards and seven scores on 216 carries, and sophomore James Butler, who ran for 635 yards and five scores on 140 carries, should take pressure off the passing game. But they’ll need holes from a front that is a work in progress. Two starters return from an offensive line that was inconsistent last year, and questions remain at center and right tackle.

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Previewing Nevada’s Defense for 2015 

The front seven is a clear strength with five starters returning. The Pack essentially have four starting linebackers at three spots with Jordan Dobrich, Matthew Lyons and Bryan Lane all returning. Faigofie Faaituala steps in as the fourth backer, but Nevada will need to fill the leadership void from the departed starter Jon McNeal.

On the line, senior end Ian Seau (nephew of late NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau) had a breakout season in 2014, leading the team in sacks (8.5) and tackles for a loss (10.5). Lenny Jones will anchor the other end of the line, and fellow senior Rykeem Yates is among the best tackles in the league. The team is high on redshirt freshmen Malik Reed and Korey Rush, who will get some time along with emerging sophomore Patrick Choudja.

Nevada will need that front seven to produce a steady pass rush because the secondary is very young and inexperienced. All four starting spots will be up for grabs in fall camp. Kendall Johnson played at corner as a true freshman last year and has moved inside to safety this season, with redshirt freshman Asauni Rufus and sophomore Teré Calloway battling for time. Junior Randy Uzoma had a strong spring and appears ready to ascend to a starting spot at corner, and redshirt freshman Elijah Moody could lock down the other spot.

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

Previewing Nevada’s Specialists for 2015  

The kicking game should be stable with junior placekicker Brent Zuzo (14-of-18 field goals) and junior punter Alex Boy (44.3 yards per punt) returning. Junior Elijah Mitchell should be the primary kick returner after averaging 24.8 yards per return. The speedy Mitchell is one of the favorites to handle punt returns along with junior wideout Jerico Richardson.

Final Analysis

With questions at quarterback, offensive line and receiver, Nevada will rely on its improving defense. Still, there will be bumps.

San Diego State is the favorite in the West Division, but Nevada isn’t far behind. A favorable home conference slate should help Nevada land a bowl game for the 10th time in 11 years.


#109 UConn Huskies



American Athletic East PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Bob Diaco, 2-10 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Frank Verducci | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vincent Brown, Anthony Poindexter

Bob Diaco enters his second season at UConn looking for answers after a 2-10 record in 2014. The Huskies need to find a spark on offense after averaging just 15.5 points per game last year. The strength of the team will be a defense with seven returning starters, featuring one of the top linebacking corps in the American Athletic Conference.

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Previewing UConn’s Offense for 2015

Coach Bob Diaco shifted his entire offensive staff with every coach moving to a different position after the unit was among the least productive in FBS last year, averaging a lowly 15.5 points per game. The Huskies also brought in veteran coach Frank Verducci as offensive coordinator to help develop a physical and ball-control running game.

The quarterback position rests with sophomore Bryant Shirreffs, who has the inside track over junior Tim Boyle after a strong spring. Shirreffs, who sat out last season as a transfer from NC State, is a dual-threat quarterback who has shown excellent running ability and impressed the staff with his arm on deep throws. Boyle remains in the hunt, though the junior struggled after being named the starter late last season and has thrown only one touchdown with 11 career interceptions. True freshman Tyler Davis, who enrolled in the spring, and junior college transfer Garrett Anderson will also be in the mix.

The other skill positions are in better shape. Sophomore running back Ron Johnson will be the featured back after leading the team in rushing a year ago with 429 yards and averaging 3.8 yards per carry. Fellow sophomore Arkeel Newsome is an explosive talent who will be used in the screen game and is capable of making plays in space. 

The top two wide receivers from last season must be replaced, but there is a budding star in junior Noel Thomas, an explosive downfield threat. He finished the year with 305 yards on 26 catches with four touchdowns. Sophomore Thomas Lucas is a physical receiver who has shown an ability to create separation. Dhameer Bradley remains a dangerous slot receiver.

There is reason for hope for a line that struggled last season for the nation’s 123rd-ranked offense. Mammoth 6'8", 310-pound junior Andreas Knappe and fellow junior Richard Levy return as bookend tackles. 

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Previewing UConn’s Defense for 2015 

The Huskies return seven starters on defense, including their top four tacklers. There is experience and production at all levels as UConn enters its second year in the 3-4 alignment favored by Diaco. The defense is led by senior linebackers Marquise Vann and Graham Stewart. Vann led the team with 105 tackles, while Stewart had 94 tackles and led the Huskies with 10.5 tackles for a loss.

The secondary is strong. Andrew Adams returns at free safety after securing 96 tackles and four interceptions, and he’s joined by the physically gifted Obi Melinfonwu at strong safety. The corners — junior Jhavon Williams and sophomore Jamar Summers — are talented cover guys. Summers stepped in last season after an injury to NFL-bound Byron Jones.

The defensive line returns its top player in senior nose tackle Julian Campenni. Sophomore defensive end Folorunso Fatukasi is a player on the rise.

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

Previewing UConn’s Specialists for 2015

Junior Bobby Puyol returns at kicker after making 9-of-14 field goals, but he will be pushed by strong-legged freshman Michael Tarbutt. Justin Wain had an excellent first season as the punter with a 38.8-yard average and 17 punts inside the 20.

Final Analysis 

Coming off a 2–10 season in Diaco’s first year — the worst in their 11-year history in the FBS — the Huskies should be better across the board. The Huskies have not made a bowl game in four years and possess a difficult non-conference schedule with games at BYU and Missouri and conference road games at UCF and Cincinnati. The defense should be very solid, but the Huskies will have to dramatically improve on offense to even be in contention for a bowl bid late in the season. 

The Debate

What Grade Does Bob Diaco Get for His Debut Season?

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#106 Tulsa Golden Hurricane



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Philip Montgomery, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Sterlin Gilbert, Matt Mattox | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bill Young, Brian Norwood

Philip Montgomery helped Art Briles engineer one of the nation’s top offenses at Baylor, and the veteran assistant finally gets his chance to run a program, replacing Bill Blankenship after a 2-10 record in 2014. The Golden Hurricane should have an explosive offense, but the defense gave up 39.3 points per game last year.

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Previewing Tulsa’s Offense for 2015 

Philip Montgomery has long been an admirer of Tulsa football. The former Baylor offensive coordinator knew about the school’s recent history of conference championships and bowl triumphs. So when the university approached him to be a head coach who could revitalize both an offense and a fanbase, he was anxious for the challenge.

“There’s a ton of positive energy around this campus and the community,” says Montgomery, who inherits a program with only five wins over the past two seasons. “They’ve won conference championships here. They’ve won a lot of games, and we want to help get them back to that level.”

Points are necessary in the high-scoring American Athletic Conference, and at Tulsa, everything will focus on the quarterback. Junior Dane Evans and true freshman Chad President, an early enrollee, spent the spring learning Montgomery’s system. Evans ranked second in the American in passing yards per game (258.5) in 2014. President, a former Baylor commit, ran a similar offense during a prolific high school career.

“We put a lot of pressure on our quarterback … those guys have to have a great understanding of what we do,” Montgomery says.

The quarterback will have weapons at running back and wide receiver. Senior Zack Langer was second in the conference in rushing yards (80.1 ypg). The passing attack will welcome back wide receiver Keevan Lucas, a junior who had 101 receptions, 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Senior Keyarris Garrett (47 catches, 698 yards, five touchdowns) will be a key target as well.

“We have good core depth,” Montgomery says. “We just need to put them in position to make plays and be successful in what we do.”

Previewing Tulsa’s Defense for 2015

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Veteran coach Bill Young — Tulsa’s new defensive co-coordinator — has plenty of work to do. He inherits a unit that ranked 114th in the nation in total defense (486.8 ypg) and 119th in scoring defense (39.3 ppg). The Golden Hurricane allowed fewer than 30 points only once last season, in a 38–28 win over SMU.

There may be no quick fixes, but Young has a foundation upon which to build. The defensive line returns All-AAC second-team end Derrick Alexander, who had a team-high 12 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks last year, and tackle Derrick Luetjen, who has started 24 straight games.

Linebacker Craig Suits was an FWAA Freshman All-American with 81 tackles, and he’ll be joined by Trent Martin, a junior who had eight tackles for a loss in only nine games last season.

The secondary is anchored by leading tackler Michael Mudoh, a hard-hitting safety with 113 stops last season.

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

Previewing Tulsa’s Specialists for 2015 

Punter Dalton Parks averaged 42 yards per boot last season. From that point, all jobs will be open. Preston Soper and Redford Jones are getting the first looks at kicker. D’Angelo Brewer has experience with kickoff returns, and Conner Floyd took back punts, but Montgomery indicates that many different players will be looked at to contribute at the spot.

Final Analysis 

Montgomery’s hiring will bring a much-needed boost to the Tulsa football program, which turned stagnant after winning the 2012 Conference USA championship. The offense should profit from the new system, which will get the football into the hands of many different playmakers. The Hurricane’s most important fix will be on defense. Stopping teams may once again be difficult for Tulsa, which will place the emphasis on the offense to score points. Patience will be important — for both the coaching staff and fans — during 2015’s rebuilding season. 

The Debate

What Grade Does Tulsa Get for Hiring Philip Montgomery?

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#104 Tulane Green Wave



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Curtis Johnson, 12-25 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eric Price | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jason Rollins, Lionel Washington

Tulane heads into Curtis Johnson’s fourth year looking to rebound after a 3-9 record in 2014. The Green Wave has 13 returning starters and a promising core of talent to build around, but the offense is looking for a spark after struggling last season.

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Previewing Tulane’s Offense for 2015

Strong-armed sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee is the clear starter but will need to improve significantly after a rough redshirt freshman debut season in which Tulane struggled across the board offensively. The Green Wave ranked 107th in total offense and 121st in points, failing to score more than 14 in eight of their last nine games.

Lee was part of the problem, tossing more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12). He threw for 262 yards and three scores in a 38–31 loss to Tulsa in the opener but cooled down quickly as defenses confused him and his freshman-laden receiving corps.

Almost all of Lee’s top targets are sophomores who learned on the job as true freshmen. Wide receiver Teddy Veal led the Green Wave with 40 catches for 381 yards. Tight ends Charles Jones and Trey Scott figured heavily in the offense during spring practice.

The running game, which ranked 91st nationally, should be a strength if it receives better blocking from a line that returns four starters. The three-headed backfield of speedy Sherman Badie (688 yards, 5.7 per carry), power runner Lazedrick Thompson (533 yards, four touchdowns) and well-rounded Dontrell Hilliard is one of the best in the American Athletic Conference. Badie broke off three runs of more than 70 yards.

Previewing Tulane’s Defense for 2015 

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With several key starters returning, Tulane should be closer to its form from 2013 (when it ranked 22nd nationally in yards allowed) than last season (when it dipped to 55th). The key will be replacing safety Sam Scofield, who led the team in tackles the past two years, and cornerback Lorenzo Doss, who declared for the draft after picking off 15 passes in three seasons.

The talent is there. Darion Monroe, a four-star recruit in 2012, returns for his fourth year as a starter at safety. Sophomore cornerback Parry Nickerson outplayed Doss last season, making 51 tackles with a team-high six interceptions.

Diminutive linebacker Nico Marley (5'9", 200), the Conference USA Co-Freshman of the Year in 2013, had no letdown as a sophomore, registering a team-best 13.5 tackles for a loss. He galvanizes everyone around him to play harder.

The Wave are solid at tackle, where junior All-AAC candidate Tanzel Smart (47 stops) and sophomore Sean Wilson are entering their second year as a tandem. End is a concern. Royce LaFrance has all-conference ability but was up and down as a junior before missing spring practice for academic reasons. 

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

Previewing Tulane’s Specialists for 2015 

The kicking game was a debacle last year, and correcting those woes is priority No. 1 for new special teams coach Doug Lichtenberger. First, he has to find a reliable kicker after the Wave missed half of their 16 field goals. Walk-on Trevor Simms has unlimited range but questionable accuracy. Sophomore Andrew DiRocco missed a potential game-winning 21-yarder in the opener and never recovered. Incoming freshman Zach Block is rated more highly as a punter than placekicker. Badie could boost a kickoff return unit that ranked second-to-last nationally. Punter Peter Picerelli is coming off a poor year (37.8-yard average). 

Final Analysis 

The pieces are in place for an uptick in coach Curtis Johnson’s fourth season, but everything needs to go right after Tulane struggled with the move from Conference USA to the stronger AAC. Lee needs to mature quickly and get a better rapport with his young receivers. The running backs, whom Johnson considers NFL-caliber, need better blocking. The defense needs to apply more pressure on quarterbacks after having just 22 sacks last year. And, maybe most significantly, the Wave have to shore up their kicking game. The struggles there sapped confidence from the entire team. 


#102 SMU Mustangs



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Chad Morris, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joe Craddock | DEF. COORDINATOR: Van Malone

Chad Morris was one of the offseason’s top hires, but the first-year coach has plenty of work ahead in 2015. SMU returns only 11 starters and will be implementing new schemes on both sides of the ball after a 1-11 finish in 2014. The Mustangs will be better, and the future looks bright with Morris at the helm.

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Previewing SMU’s Offense for 2015 

Coach Chad Morris is confident that junior Matt Davis can operate his smash-mouth spread offense. After all, Morris recruited the dual-threat quarterback who signed with Texas A&M out of high school, while he was Clemson’s offensive coordinator.

Davis managed to stimulate a lifeless offense last year. Taking over the starting job the last six games, he finished the season as the team’s top rusher. His passing skills should improve in the new scheme, which employs two running backs and a tight end and relies more on runs between the tackles and vertical passes. The quick tempo of this no-huddle formation can keep defenses guessing when operated properly. With redshirt freshman Daniel Gresham, sophomore Darius Durall, senior K.C. Nlemchi and junior Prescott Line at running back, Morris has a variety of skills from which to choose.

SMU did not use a tight end in June Jones’ run-and-shoot, but Jeremiah Gaines (6'2", 240) has the size and hands to step in. The receiving corps, led by senior returning starter Darius Joseph (54 catches for 379 yards), needs more consistent play from Nate Halverson, Cedric Lancaster, Deion Sanders Jr. and Ryheem Malone. Freshmen Kevin Thomas and Xavier Castille could also make an impact.

Previewing SMU’s Defense for 2015

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Under new defensive coordinator Van Malone, who coached defensive backs at Oklahoma State, the Mustangs have switched to a 4-2-5 scheme. This should allow SMU to emphasize speed on the edge and in the secondary while avoiding physical mismatches up front.

Malone hopes a more aggressive approach will put players in position to create turnovers. The Mustangs ranked 120th nationally with a minus-14 turnover margin last year.

Shakiel Randolph, who has the look of an NFL cornerback at 6'4", 216 pounds, should be a good fit in the new Star hybrid role. He played safety one year, switched to cornerback because of injuries last season and has added significant muscle. Jonathan Yenga, fourth in tackles last season, has 15.5 tackles for a loss the last two years.

Zach Wood, who had a team-high four sacks last year, will anchor the line. Mason Gentry (6'6", 292) has the size to be a force. The development of Elie Nabushosi, Zelt Minor and Spencer Hollie should produce a more consistent attack by committee with Andrew McCleneghen, Cameron Smith and Nick Reed. True freshman Chris Biggurs is the top newcomer.

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

Previewing SMU’s Specialists for 2015 

Sanders Jr., second-team all-conference as a kick returner last season, set school records for single-game return yards (203) and returns (10). As a senior in high school, kicker Josh Williams hit a 71-yard field goal during practice. Range shouldn’t be an issue.

Final Analysis 

Bringing an up-tempo pace to all facets of SMU football, Morris seems the ideal candidate to rebuild the program from the ashes of 1–11. And things may not be quite as dire for the Mustangs as they appeared last season. “It was a tough deal with the interim coach coming in at mid-year and they weren’t winning,” says one AAC assistant. “I thought they were probably better than their record indicated; it was just a bad situation.”

That situation has certainly improved with the high-profile hire of Morris. Having spent 16 years as a Texas high school coach, Morris has used his ties to repair recruiting relationships with coaches in the state, particularly in Dallas-Forth Worth. The turnaround may take some time, but Morris has SMU fans thinking big again.


#90 Appalachian State Mountaineers





HEAD COACH: Scott Satterfield, 11-13 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dwayne Ledford, Frank Ponce | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nate Woody

Coming off of a seven-win season, Appalachian State is now finally eligible to enjoy the full benefits of being a FBS member. That could mean a bowl bid and possible Sun Belt championship for the Mountaineers, as Scott Satterfield's team returns 10 starters on each side of the ball. Plenty of experience and a favorable home schedule should produce six wins, if not more, in 2015.

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Previewing Appalachian State’s Offense for 2015

Six games into last season, Appalachian State had one win and loads of excuses. The Mountaineers were in their first season on the FBS level, and with freshmen or sophomores filling 14 of the 22 spots in the starting lineup, there was youth everywhere. If the season had gone off the rails, it would have been easy to pinpoint why. But it didn’t. Appalachian State closed the year winning six straight, thanks in large part to an offensive renaissance built around a sturdy running game. In the final six games, the Mountaineers’ rushing average jumped by 99 yards per game.

Four of the five offensive linemen who powered that improvement return, led by senior center Jesse Chapman. The guards are Parker Collins and Colby Gossett, and right tackle Beau Nunn is also back. Davante Harris, who started the first five games a year ago, is penciled in at left tackle.

After rushing for 1,415 yards and earning a spot on the All-Sun Belt second team, running back Marcus Cox is back as well. According to coach Scott Satterfield, the junior won’t have to shoulder as much of the load, as sophomore Terrence Upshaw and freshmen Jalin Moore and Josh Boyd are ready to contribute.

Sophomore quarterback Taylor Lamb, son of longtime Furman coach and current Mercer head man Bobby Lamb, will continue to pilot the offense after breaking the freshman passing record held by Mountaineers great Armanti Edwards. His top four receiving targets from last season are all back, meaning the offense that blossomed late last season should be able to keep its momentum going.

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

Previewing Appalachian State’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.

With 10 starters back, Appalachian State’s defense should be up for whatever the Sun Belt throws at it.

Satterfield expects senior defensive end Ronald Blair — who racked up six sacks as a junior — to be the next Mountaineer to reach the NFL. The three-year starter leads a defensive front that’s long on experience.

Junior linebacker John Law led the team in tackles last season. He’ll be surrounded by proven talents such as inside linebacker Eric Boggs and outside linebackers Devan Stringer and Kennan Gilchrist.

Senior defensive back Doug Middleton picked off a team-high four passes last year and will anchor an experienced secondary. Corner Brandon Pinckney is a new starter, but Satterfield says he has full faith in the sophomore.

Previewing Appalachian State’s Specialists for 2015

After averaging 40.7 yards per punt, junior Bentlee Critcher has a firm grip on a starting spot. Senior Zach Matics is expected to once again handle the kicking duties. Satterfield expects seniors Bobo Beathard and Simms McElfresh to join sophomore Isaiah Lewis on return duties.

Final Analysis

The transition from FCS powerhouse to Sun Belt newcomer was likely a jarring one for Mountaineers fans who fondly recall the heady days of winning national titles and authoring an all-time great upset at Michigan. But this season should provide them with a pleasant taste of their new normal.

By finishing third in the Sun Belt last season, the Mountaineers showed they could compete. With loads of experience back and plenty of confidence banked from last year’s strong finish, there’s no reason to believe this season can’t be even better.

Throw in the fact that the Mountaineers could now earn a bowl invite — they were barred from it last season — and have a schedule that features home games against league heavyweights UL-Lafayette, Arkansas State and longtime Southern Conference rival Georgia Southern, and life on the FBS level should begin to feel just right.


#89 Rice Owls





HEAD COACH: David Bailiff, 48-53 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Larry Edmondson, Billy Lynch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Thurmond

Rice is enjoying its most successful three-year stretch in program history, highlighted by a 2013 Conference USA championship. David Bailiff's 2015 team will be looking to replicate's last year's eight wins, but to do so the Owls will need to rely on a large batch of new starters, especially on defense.

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Previewing Rice’s Offense for 2015

Fifth-year senior quarterback Driphus Jackson continues to build confidence after throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first season as the Owls’ starter. The dual-threat Jackson sat out most of the spring following offseason surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder but is expected to be ready for the start of fall camp.

At running back, Rice has arguably the best 1-2 combo in Conference USA in Jowan Davis, who came within 44 yards of his first 1,000-yard season, and Darik Dillard, who had 11 rushing touchdowns. The Owls present challenges with the ability to show multiple looks out of the backfield, particularly with former high school quarterback Luke Turner in the team’s Wild Owl package.

Dennis Parks, a physical receiver, is the top returner along with Zach Wright, who saw extensive playing time due to injuries. The other candidates — James Mayden, Temi Alaka and Cameron Decell — had a combined 13 catches a year ago. The biggest loss on offense was Jordan Taylor, who finished as the No. 2 receiver in school history (total yards and touchdown receptions).

Four-year starter Caleb Williams returns at right tackle, and Andrew Reue, a three-year starter, is projected at left guard. Redshirt freshman Calvin Anderson is the frontrunner to start at left tackle, although the Owls have some flexibility with Reue able to play all five positions on the offensive line.

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

Previewing Rice’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 defensive line expected to be one of the best in C-USA suffered major losses in the offseason. First, Christian Covington, despite missing most of 2014 with a knee injury, opted to skip his final year and enter the NFL Draft. Then All-C-USA first-teamer Brian Nordstrom, who had 7.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss, quit football to take a six-figure job in the oil and gas industry. Those moves left the Owls scrambling to fill holes this spring. Nose tackle Ross Winship is the only returning regular. Stuart Mouchantaf is expected to be healthy after missing most of the past two seasons with a knee injury, while Graysen Schantz and Brian Womac have the inside track for starting jobs at defensive end.

There’s strength at linebacker, led by Alex Lyons, who led the team in tackles and was an All-C-USA selection, and Nick Elder.

The Owls have made strides in pass coverage in recent years under veteran defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond, who seems to get the most out of talent. He’ll be faced with a huge challenge with four new starters in the secondary. The lone holdover is Ryan Pollard at cornerback. V.J. Banks, who played as a true freshman, is a candidate to play opposite Pollard. 

Previewing Rice’s Specialists for 2015

The most pressing special teams concern is finding more consistency on field goals and extra points. The Owls used a scholarship on kicker Jack Fox, rated the No. 15 high school kicker in the nation, and will give him a chance to win the job in fall camp. Punter James Farrimond has emerged as a difference maker, averaging 42 yards to earn a spot on the Ray Guy Award watch list last season.  

Final Analysis

Rice has come a long way since the days of being “everybody’s homecoming game,” head coach David Bailiff says. The best three-year stretch in school history has produced three straight bowl appearances (two wins), 25 victories and a 2013 C-USA title. Construction began this offseason on a $31.5 million end-zone training facility, and there are talks about a much-needed facelift for Rice Stadium. With so many questions — and a tough opening month — it might be asking too much to come close to the win totals from the last three seasons, but the Owls should be in position for another bowl trip.