#54 Navy Midshipmen



Independents PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Ken Niumatalolo, 57-35 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Ivin Jasper | DEF. COORDINATOR: Buddy Green

The Midshipmen have been to six bowls in seven years under Ken Niumatalolo. With a superstar returning under center in the form of Keenan Reynolds, a seventh bowl game is all but certain. But can Navy contend for an American Athletic Conference championship in their first season in the new league?

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Navy’s Offense for 2015

Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is looking to cap a remarkable career with a strong senior season. The Tennessee native already owns a slew of school records and ranks first among quarterbacks in NCAA history with 64 rushing touchdowns.  A rare fourth-year starter in Navy’s triple-option offense, Reynolds boasts a 21–11 record.

Reynolds will have plenty of proven weapons at his disposal, with senior fullback Chris Swain, senior slot back DeBrandon Sanders and junior wide receiver Jamir Tillman leading the way. Swain, a powerfully built 245-pounder bruiser, is coming off a strong 2014 campaign in which he displayed vastly improved vision while rushing for 693 yards. Sanders, a 5'7", 160-pound jitterbug, has averaged 8.0 yards per rush and 19.3 yards per reception during his career. Tillman, a smooth and fluid 6'4", 206-pounder, emerged as a big-play threat in 2014.

Navy must rebuild its offensive line after graduating three starters. Left guard E.K. Binns, entering his third season as a starter, takes over as the leader of the unit.

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

Previewing Navy’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 Midshipmen suffered significant losses on the defensive side of the ball, most notably end Paul Quessenberry, linebackers Jordan Drake and Chris Johnson and safety Parrish Gaines. That quartet will not be easy to replace.

Senior nose guard Bernie Sarra is one of the strongest players on the team and has done an outstanding job of holding the point of attack since moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore. Right end Will Anthony was the breakout performer of 2014, leading the team with 11.0 tackles for a loss.

Navy’s 3-4 scheme requires the inside linebackers to make the majority of the tackles, and Daniel Gonzales stepped up as a sophomore, ranking second on the squad with 86. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Three of the four linebackers will be first-time starters, although the speedy and rangy William Tuider has seen significant action in a reserve role. 

Junior Brendon Clements has started 20 straight games at cornerback and displayed superb ball instincts along with sure tackling. The Miami native already has 107 career tackles and eight pass breakups. Quincy Adams started all 13 games at the opposite corner and earned honorable mention All-Independent honors after finishing as Navy’s third-leading tackler. Strong safety Kwazel Bertrand has started 16 games over the previous two seasons.

Previewing Navy’s Specialists for 2015

Navy must replace one of the finest punters in program history in Pablo Beltran, a four-year starter who ranks second in school history with a 41.8-yard average. Senior Gavin Jernigan, the backup the previous two seasons, will get first crack at the job. Austin Grebe took over as the starting placekicker in the seventh game of last season and was impressive, hitting 6-of-6 on field goals and 33-of-33 on extra points. 

Final Analysis  

This is a new era for Navy, which joins the American Athletic Conference following more than a century as an Independent. The Midshipmen own a 34–27–1 record against current AAC members and have regularly played schools such as SMU, East Carolina and Tulane.

Veteran coach Ken Niumatalolo says capturing the conference championship has now been added to the annual goals of beating service academy rivals Army and Air Force to secure the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and qualifying for a bowl game.

 “I think joining a conference is something we had to do and will be good for the program over the long haul,” Niumatalolo says. “However, there is a lot of apprehension and nervousness because there are so many unknowns.”


#55 Kentucky Wildcats





HEAD COACH: Mark Stoops, 7-17 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shannon Dawson | DEF. COORDINATOR: D.J. Eliot

There was tangible growth for Kentucky in Mark Stoops second season in Lexington. Despite a disappointing second half that still left the Wildcats at home during bowl season, Stoops was able to build a more competitive team. The Cats won two SEC games last fall and if it can improve by just one game, a postseason berth is very possible in 2015.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Kentucky’s Offense for 2015: 

When coordinator Neal Brown left to become the head coach at Troy after last season, Mark Stoops wanted to maintain continuity, so he grabbed another branch from the “Air Raid” coaching tree that began blooming at UK in the late 1990s with Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. Stoops hired West Virginia OC Shannon Dawson, who spent four years under Dana Holgorsen.

In his first spring at Kentucky, Dawson earned praise for his work with quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker, and for the balance and creativity of his attack. It produced five touchdowns in the Cats’ final scrimmage of the spring.

Dawson has two prototypical prospects — and former four-star recruits — to choose from at QB. Towles (6'5", 241) and Barker (6'3", 221) battled to a near draw in spring, but as a junior who started every game and produced more than 3,000 total yards last fall, Towles has the edge in experience.

There’s more talent around the QBs than any point in recent memory. Sophomore tailback Stanley “Boom” Williams had 1,159 all-purpose yards last season, including three touchdown runs of 50-plus yards. His backup is Jojo Kemp, who had 131 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina last season.

Junior wideout Ryan Timmons (874 career yards) is joined by a quartet of sophomore receivers — big targets Blake Bone and Dorian Baker and breakaway threats Garrett Johnson and Jeff Badet — plus true freshman tight end C.J. Conrad, an early enrollee who looked like a legitimate threat this spring.

Four starters are back on an offensive line that is the deepest and most physically imposing of Stoops’ three-year tenure. 

 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 Kentucky’s Defense for 2015:  

Replacing star ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith won’t be easy, but Kentucky has upgraded its talent elsewhere. Senior nose tackle Melvin Lewis, a 6'4", 342-pound former junior college transfer, will anchor the line, and Stoops expects a breakout year from linebacker Ryan Flannigan, another transfer in his second season with the Wildcats.

Former four-star recruit Jason Hatcher, a junior who waited his turn behind Dupree, is ready for prime time at outside linebacker in what has morphed into a full-time 3-4 defense.

Senior free safety A.J. Stamps is back after a strong debut season at Kentucky in which he intercepted a team-high four passes. He’ll lead a group that includes versatile veterans Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson and Kendall Randolph.

Stoops remains concerned about his corners, but at least he has experienced options there. Seniors Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller have 47 starts and 29 pass breakups between them. But there’s room for a newcomer to break into the lineup.

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

Previewing Kentucky’s Specialists for 2015: 

The Cats boast two of the most reliable legs in the SEC in senior punter Landon Foster and sophomore placekicker Austin MacGinnis. Foster averaged 42.6 yards per punt last season, including a career-best 60-yarder. MacGinnis earned Freshman All-America honors.

Final Analysis

This is a critical season for Stoops and Kentucky. The administration has given him the resources — huge raises for him and his staff, a $120 million stadium renovation that opens this fall and a $45 million practice facility under construction — and Year 3 is time to deliver results.

The positive vibes of a 5–1 start last fall vanished with the Wildcats’ 0–6 finish. But after three straight top-40 recruiting classes and three springs and summers to develop that talent, Stoops is confident the tide is turning. “Significantly better right now,” he says. “I think it’s hard to put into words exactly. I definitely feel like we’re developing them to be a winning football team.” 

The Debate

Is Boom Williams the SEC's Top Breakout Player for 2015?

Click here to join the debate.


#58 Northwestern Wildcats



Big Ten West Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Pat Fitzgerald, 60-53 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mick McCall | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Hankwitz

Pat Fitzgerald is the father of Northwestern football but his Wildcats have missed the postseason two seasons in a row after five straight bowl games. His roster returns a large chunk of the depth chart — try 15 starters — but he has to plug holes at key positions like quarterback. His roster is in good shape but he needs to regain some former magic if Northwestern wants to win the Big Ten West Division.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Northwestern’s Offense for 2015

A unit that has backslid significantly since 2012 must recapture efficiency and explosiveness. The regeneration attempt will occur with a new starting quarterback, as senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson competed closely throughout the spring.

The offense hinges on three factors where Northwestern struggled in 2014: passing accuracy (57.4 percent), third-down conversions (40 percent) and QB mobility (minus-94 net yards).

The Wildcats can build around running back Justin Jackson, who had six 100-yard rushing performances and ranked fourth among Power 5 freshmen in all-purpose average (98.9 ypg). The return of Christian Jones, Northwestern’s leading receiver in 2012 and 2013, should boost an underperforming receiving corps. Northwestern could use Jones in the slot alongside super backs Dan Vitale and Garrett Dickerson — three big bodies who create matchup problems. Coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes Miles Shuler, Solomon Vault and others can stretch the field, as Northwestern recorded only 34 plays of 20 yards or longer last season, fewer than all but three FBS teams. “We have to get faster and more explosive and create more separation on the perimeter,” Fitzgerald says.

The line must protect better after several players switched positions.

Previewing Northwestern’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.

Recent recruiting upgrades could pay off as young defenders forced into major roles by injury last fall can build on their experience. Two of them, linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Godwin Igwebuike, combined for five interceptions and a forced fumble as redshirt freshmen. Both become full-time starters as Igwebuike joins three returning starters in a secondary that could be Northwestern’s best under Fitzgerald.

The Wildcats are experienced at cornerback and defensive end, where three veterans — Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo — return alongside Xavier Washington, the only true freshman defender to play in 2014. Odenigbo, who has 8.5 career sacks and forced three fumbles last year, had his best spring and could be ready to break out. 

Northwestern needs improved health and production at defensive tackle after allowing six opponents to eclipse 200 yards rushing last year. Outside linebacker also is thin as speedy senior Drew Smith becomes a full-time starter. 

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

Previewing Northwestern’s Specialists for 2015

Northwestern must restore its effectiveness in the kicking game after a down year. Punter Hunter Niswander stood out in spring ball as he tries to boost a unit that finished 121st and 118th nationally the past two years in net average. Jack Mitchell had a solid first season at kicker, connecting on 14-of-18 field-goal attempts, most notably the game-winner at Notre Dame. Shuler should help a below-average return game along with Vault, who averaged 26.2 yards on kick returns in limited work as a freshman.   

Final Analysis

A sense of normalcy is back at Northwestern, and so is a sense of urgency. The Wildcats understand what a third consecutive bowl-less campaign would do to a program still fighting the pre-1995 loser label. Fitzgerald has arguably his most talented defense, and if the special teams meet his expectations, the season once again could hinge on reigniting the offense. A drop-prone receiving corps must take a step forward, and an inconsistent line must protect the new quarterback, but there are weapons such as Jackson, Jones and Vitale.

Northwestern must navigate another tricky non-league schedule with Stanford and Duke but once again misses Ohio State and Michigan State in league play. “We’ve got to do the things winners do,” Fitzgerald says. “We’ve got to get that edge back.”

The Debate

Where Does Pat Fitzgerald Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

Click here to join the debate.


#56 Boston College Eagles





HEAD COACH: Steve Addazio, 14-12 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Todd Fitch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Don Brown

Steve Addazio has installed a personality in two seasons at Boston College. His teams have an identity, and the program is coming off back-to-back bowl games. The rest of the ACC knows exactly what it’s getting out of the Eagles on both sides of the ball and it’s still tough to stop. However, with just nine starters back, Addazio has his work cut out for him in the brutal Atlantic Division.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Boston College’s Offense for 2015

With former offensive coordinator Ryan Day now the quarterbacks coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, new OC Todd Fitch will have to break in a new system, a new starting quarterback and a new offensive line that replaces five starters. In other words, while the Eagles have plenty of returning talent at running back, there are more questions than answers for an offense that rushed for 254.7 yards per game last year, good for 14th in the nation.

Expect quarterback Darius Wade to start. The sophomore threw only eight passes a year ago, and the 6'0", 201-pound dual threat will need to be more accurate than the departed Tyler Murphy (57 percent completion rate in 2014) for the offense to take the next step. Tight end/receiver Dan Crimmins was expected to be the top target for Wade, but his status with the team is uncertain as of late May.

The ground game should be in good hands with sophomore running back Jon Hilliman, who gained 860 yards with 13 touchdowns last fall. He will lead another committee approach that includes Myles Willis, Tyler Rouse and Marcus Outlow. Although not a running back, the speedy Sherman Alston should get plenty of carries from his wide receiver spot on jet sweeps, as the sophomore rushed for 352 yards at 10.4 yards per carry as a true freshman.

The only fly in the ointment may be the offensive line, which replaces all five starters. That said, coach Steve Addazio likes what he has on the interior, with sixth-year senior Harris Williams, who can play either guard or center, leading the way.

Previewing Boston College’s Defense for 2015

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.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown always puts together an attacking unit that is led by a rugged front seven and utilizes a lot of creative blitzes. Expect that to be the case again and for the Eagles to repeat as one of the top defenses in the country against the run. A year ago, the Eagles finished second only to Michigan State in rush defense, allowing only 94.5 yards per game.

Clearly, the strength of the defense — and possibly the team overall — is in the front seven. The Eagles return five starters there, including three along a defensive line that returns tackles Truman Gutapfel and Connor Wujciak and end Kevin Kavalec. Along with other projected starter Malachi Moore at end, those four combined for 29.5 tackles for a loss last year and should increase that production in 2015.

The linebackers are led by senior Steven Daniels, who was second on the team with 72 tackles last year, including 7.0 for a loss. The secondary loses cornerback Manny Asprilla and safety Dominique Williams, but free safety Justin Simmons, the team’s leading tackler, is back. Simmons, who made 76 stops and two interceptions a year ago, can also play cornerback and gives the secondary leadership and experience. 

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

Previewing Boston College’s Specialists for 2015

The Eagles will need more consistency out of kicker Alex Howell, who made just 5-of-11 field goal attempts last year, including 3-of-9 from 40 yards or longer. Howell acquitted himself much better as a punter with a 42.5-yard average. Returns should be in good hands with Willis and Alston back to handle kick and punt return duties, respectively.

Final Analysis 

Addazio has this program going in the right direction after taking over a 2–10 team and putting together back-to-back winning seasons. Still, the question remains whether or not the Eagles can take that next step and become a true contender in the ACC. The defense should give this team a chance, but an inexperienced offense may prevent any giant leaps forward.

The Debate

Where Does Jon Hilliman Rank Among ACC RBs?

Click here to join the debate.


#59 Memphis Tigers



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Justin Fuente, 17-20 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Darrell Dickey | DEF. COORDINATOR: Galen Scott

Justin Fuente has quickly changed the mindset of the Memphis program. This team was competitive against big-time competition last year and claimed a share of the American Athletic Conference championship. The offense should be solid with seven starters back, but Fuente has to replace eight starters and a coordinator on the defensive side of the ball. If things fall into place quickly, this team is a top challenger in the AAC once again.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Memphis’ Offense for 2015

When he named Paxton Lynch, a 6'7" freshman, his starting quarterback before the start of the 2013 season, Memphis coach Justin Fuente encountered mild criticism. Fuente never wavered in his belief that Lynch could develop into one of the American Athletic Conference’s top quarterbacks. After struggling his freshman season, Lynch blossomed last fall. He passed for 3,031 yards — becoming only the third Tigers quarterback to surpass 3,000 yards in a season — to lead the program to its first 10-win season since 1938 and its first bowl game since 2008.

At running back, the Tigers lost veteran Brandon Hayes, who finished just shy of 1,000 yards, but return Doroland Dorceus, who missed most of the season and spring practice with a knee injury. Sophomore Jarvis Cooper is a punishing 250-pounder who possesses deceptive speed. He should be a first option in goal-line situations. Junior Sam Craft is a multi-purpose talent who could line up in the backfield or at receiver.

Memphis returns leading receiver Mose Frazier, more efficient than flashy operating out of the slot. In all, four of the team’s top six receivers are back, including tight end Alan Cross, who was a first-team all-league selection last year. 

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

Previewing Memphis’ 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.

One of the league’s top defensive units was hit hard by losses as it must replace eight starters. Plus, highly regarded coordinator Barry Odom left to return to Missouri, his alma mater, in the same role. Associate head coach and linebackers coach Galen Scott steps into Odom’s position.

Scott has to find three new starting linebackers, three new starting defensive backs and two new starting defensive linemen. Cornerback Bobby McCain was a four-year starter, and defensive end Martin Ifedi was the school’s career sacks leader. Linebacker Tank Jakes was the league’s co-Defensive Player of the Year.

In their places, Scott could insert Dontrell Nelson at cornerback, Latarius Brady at defensive end and Wynton McManis at linebacker. All played extensively as reserves with Nelson returning an interception 58 yards for a touchdown.

The top defensive returnee will be end/linebacker Jackson Dillon, a rangy, hard-hitting player who forced two fumbles and had nine tackles for a loss. Nelson and junior Chauncey Lanier are the leading candidates to start at cornerback. Free safety Reggis Ball is the lone returning starter in the secondary.

Previewing Memphis’ Specialists for 2015

Memphis returns the league’s top kicker and reigning conference Special Teams Player of Year in Jake Elliott, whose season included a dramatic 54-yard, game-tying field goal in the first overtime of the Tigers’ win over BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl. He has made 37-of-50 field goals in his first two seasons, including the game-winner in the closing seconds at Temple last year that made the Tigers bowl-eligible. The punting game is solid behind sophomores Spencer Smith and Nick Jacobs. On kickoffs, the Tigers will attempt to snap what is believed to be nation’s longest drought. Memphis has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 1996.

Final Analysis 

After going 10–3 last season and claiming a share of the AAC title, the Tigers are poised to repeat those successes. With Lynch at quarterback, the Tigers will possess a potent offense, one capable of overcoming whatever a rebuilding defense allows. A running game featuring two physical, punishing backs could be potent. Defensively, the Tigers will have to find replacements for eight players, including two — McCain and Ifedi — who will be playing in the NFL. How quickly the secondary develops in a pass-oriented conference could determine the team’s ability to repeat as league champs.


#53 Iowa Hawkeyes





HEAD COACH: Kirk Ferentz, 115-85 (16 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Greg Davis | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Parker

Kirk Ferentz is entering his 17th season at the helm of the Iowa Hawkeyes football program. He’s seen amazing highs — two Orange Bowls and two Big Ten titles — and plenty of lows. For all of the heat he’s taken, Ferentz has still gotten Iowa to 12 bowls games in his last 14 seasons. That should once again be the target of the ’15 squad. The question is how many more solid but uninspiring seasons will keep Hawkeyes fans happy? 

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Iowa’s Offense for 2015

The end of last season was also the end of Jake Rudock as an Iowa quarterback. Rudock, who started 25 of Iowa’s last 26 games, transferred to Michigan after being passed on the depth chart by junior C.J. Beathard shortly after last season.

Rudock had a 14–11 record as Iowa’s starting quarterback but was criticized for being too conservative as a passer, often settling for safer underneath routes instead of throwing downfield. Beathard, on the other hand, is blessed with a powerful right arm and likes to use it. The Tennessee native, who is the grandson of former NFL executive Bobby Beathard, played in nine games last season, starting one. He replaced an injured Rudock for the second half against Pittsburgh and for the entire game at Purdue. Iowa won both games, which fueled Beathard’s popularity. Keeping Beathard healthy will be of utmost importance because no other quarterback on the roster has any game experience.

Senior Jordan Canzeri takes over for the departed Mark Weisman as the starting running back. Canzeri is faster and shiftier than the 240-pound Weisman, but Canzeri also is injury prone. Junior LeShun Daniels also will be in the mix at running back after missing most of last season with an injury. The 225-pound Daniels probably has the best combination of power and speed among all the Iowa running backs.

Much is expected from senior receiver Tevaun Smith and senior tight end Jake Duzey. Smith led Iowa with 596 receiving yards last season, while Duzey was third with 392 receiving yards.

Previewing Iowa’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.

As disappointing as the Iowa offense was last season, the defense wasn’t much better. You could argue that it was worse in the TaxSlayer Bowl, as Tennessee shredded the Iowa defense for 461 total yards, including 283 rushing yards.

It won’t matter a whole lot what the offense does if the defense continues to struggle. There are some quality pieces to build around, most notably All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott and All-Big Ten cornerback Desmond King.

However, the linebackers are a major concern, and there will be new starters at both tackle positions. All three of Iowa’s starting linebackers are sophomores who were rushed into duty last season as freshmen. They flashed at times but were overmatched on many occasions.

The secondary, with three starters returning, is probably the strength on defense, although it was hard to tell during the loss to Tennessee because of all the missed tackles.

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

Previewing Iowa’s Specialists for 2015

Senior kicker Marshall Koehn might have improved more than any player on the team last season. He went from being a liability in the early stages of the season to a strength at the end. He made 12 of his 16 field-goal attempts and was impressive during spring practice. In fact, Koehn has impressed the coaches enough to where they also might let him punt. Seniors Connor Kornbrath and Dillon Kidd, both of whom are on scholarship, shared the punting responsibilities last season, but neither has distinguished himself. 

Final Analysis

It seems like with every strength that Iowa has, there is a weakness to offset it. Three starters return on the offensive line, but both tackles have to be replaced, including Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff. Both starters return at defensive end, but neither starter returns at defensive tackle.

Beathard is considered more athletic than Rudock, but he still is mostly unproven as a Big Ten starting quarterback.

Iowa has been average over the past three seasons with a 19–19 record. Expect more of the same from this team despite another favorable schedule.

The Debate

Where Does Kirk Ferentz Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

Click here to join the debate.


#50 Houston Cougars



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Tom Herman, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Major Applewhite | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Orlando, Craig Naivar

Tom Herman enters his first season as a head coach accustomed to expectations. After winning a national championship as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator, he now enters the American Athletic Conference as one of the league’s contenders with Houston. The Cougars has one of the most talented rosters in the league and could be considered the frontrunner if Herman can hit the ground running.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Houston’s Offense for 2015

By the end of the spring, new coach Tom Herman did not have a ringing endorsement for his offense: “We’re awful,” he said. “We’re not very good.” That’s to be expected as the Cougars attempt to change the culture of a once high-powered offense that had become stagnant in recent years.

The biggest question is at quarterback, where the competition between incumbent Greg Ward Jr. and Utah transfer Adam Schulz will continue into the fall. Ward went 6–2 after taking over the final eight games, including a 25-point, fourth-quarter comeback over Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Bowl.

Running back is the most experienced unit on offense with the return of Kenneth Farrow, who rushed for 1,037 yards and led the American Athletic Conference with 15 total touchdowns, and speedster Ryan Jackson. Both are seniors, so the Cougars will need to groom a few young heirs at some point during the season.

The Cougars will be young and inexperienced at receiver because of graduation and the surprising decision of Deontay Greenberry to leave a year early for the NFL Draft. Greenberry had 72 catches last season, more than double any other Cougars receiver. Among returners, only Demarcus Ayers and Steven Dunbar had at least 20 catches. Chance Allen, a transfer from Oregon, should provide immediate help. A rare sighting: The Cougars plan to use a tight end for the first time in eight years, with Tyler McCloskey the leading candidate.

Offensive line is the weak spot, with left tackle Zach Johnson, who is coming off ACL surgery, and right tackle Alex Cooper the only locks to start.

Previewing Houston’s Defense for 2015

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

The terminology is different, but that’s about the only change as the Cougars plan to roll out the same attacking, hard-hitting, ball-hawking unit that has produced 73 turnovers the past two seasons. New co-coordinator Todd Orlando, who was hired from Utah State, will switch to a 3-4 scheme that mixes up looks and brings pressure from all angles.

The strength is a secondary that returns all four starters, including Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart at safety and William Jackson, a shutdown cornerback drawing some NFL Draft buzz.

Defensive end B.J. Singleton is the only returner on the line. He’ll be joined by defensive tackle Nick Thurman and end Cameron Malveaux, who were impressive in the spring but have combined to start only one game.

Steven Taylor, coming off a breakout season with four sacks and nine tackles for a loss, could be next in a line of great linebackers at the school following the graduation of Derrick Mathews and Efrem Oliphant. With the shift in schemes, Tyus Bowser will be used in a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role. 

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

Previewing Houston’s Specialists for 2015

A big improvement is needed in the return game, after the Cougars ranked among the bottom half in the AAC in both punt and kickoff returns. Ayers and Stewart are candidates to handle punts, while Herman would like to use a bigger body, such as Ryan Jackson, on kickoffs. Kyle Bullard tied for third in conference with 16 field goals, while punter Logan Piper showed improvement in the spring. 

Final Analysis

A first-time head coach, Herman brings credibility after winning a national title as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State. He’s spent the first several months on the job instilling a toughness that had been lacking in recent years. The Cougars have enough talent to compete in the AAC but will need to figure things out on the offensive line and develop across-the-board depth. A ninth bowl appearance in the last 11 years is certainly within reach.

The Debate

Where Does Tom Herman Rank Among the Best Coaching Hires for 2015?

Click here to join the debate.


#49 BYU Cougars



Independent PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Bronco Mendenhall, 90-39 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Robert Anae | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Howell

Bronco Mendenhall enters his 11th season in Provo with some renewed excitement. That’s because BYU welcomes back Heisman candidate and superstar athlete Taysom Hill. The Cougars' schedule is much more difficult this fall as compared to last season, but getting Hill back could more than compensate for the increased difficulty.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing BYU’s Offense for 2015

BYU was 4–0 and ranked No. 18 before quarterback Taysom Hill broke his leg in the second quarter against Utah State, and the Cougars lost four straight games before recovering to finish 8–5 in 2014. Always a strong runner, Hill had shown signs of becoming an outstanding passer prior to his injury. He completed 66.7 percent of his passes in five games, a major improvement over his sophomore season. Hill also ran for 460 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014. Running is a big part of his game, but he may be more conscious of protecting himself as a senior. He did not fully participate in spring drills but continued his passing development in limited work. “His arm is really good,” says offensive coordinator Robert Anae.

Jamaal Williams needs 930 yards to become BYU’s all-time leading rusher. He might have challenged the record as a junior, but his season ended in early November because of a knee injury. If he’s at full strength in 2015, he will complement Hill’s ability, and BYU should have a dynamic offense.

Receiver Mitch Mathews was the offense’s star of the spring, positioning himself for a big senior season. The coaches worry about depth on the line, but they’re very confident about the ability of the starters, led by Freshman All-America center Tejan Koroma.

Previewing BYU’s Defense for 2015

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

BYU’s 55–48 double-overtime loss to Memphis in the Miami Beach Bowl persuaded coach Bronco Mendenhall to take over the defense again, after having coordinator Nick Howell make the in-game calls in 2014. Mendenhall is asking a lot of the defensive players, in effort and accountability. “They’re learning and adjusting to that,” he says. “They’re slowly making steps, rising to the expectations and demands I’m placing. Eventually, they’ll play well.”

Bronson Kaufusi is BYU’s best athlete among defensive players. Finding the best position for him is the issue. He played outside linebacker in 2014 and was productive, with a team-high 11.5 tackles for a loss, but he may be better suited at end.

Some of the Cougars’ top linebackers missed spring drills, but all of them are expected to be available in August and should help BYU improve after ranking 56th in total defense, allowing 391.5 yards per game. Harvey Langi is an intriguing player, having played running back at Utah prior to transferring and moving to defense.

Mendenhall is comfortable with his front seven but has concerns in the secondary, where junior college transfer Eric Takenaka was a discovery at safety in the spring. 

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

Previewing BYU’s Specialists for 2015

Trevor Samson attempted only 14 field goals in 2014, but he made 12, including a season-long 45-yarder in overtime against Memphis. Punting is a big issue, as BYU replaces Scott Arellano. Two freshmen, Taylor Parker and Chasen Brown, are among the contenders. Adam Hine’s 24.5-yard average on kickoff returns included a 99-yard touchdown against Virginia. Takenaka was an outstanding returner at Snow College and will join Hine. 

Final Analysis

BYU’s 2014 season did not end well. The loss to Memphis, followed by a postgame brawl, left the Cougars with regrets. The Cougars’ September schedule offers an opportunity for them to feel better about themselves and improve the outside perception of the program. Games with Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA and Michigan will go a long way toward defining BYU’s 2015 season. In an era when BYU is an Independent, Mendenhall is eager to make an impact. “We’re playing our way into contention and national recognition through the best opponents on the biggest stages, mostly away from home,” he says.


#47 California Golden Bears





HEAD COACH: Sonny Dykes, 6-18 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tony Franklin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Art Kaufman

The Golden Bears were just a handful of plays away from getting to a bowl game last fall. This team has shown marked improvement under Sonny Dykes, and with star quarterback Jared Goff poised for a breakout season, reaching the postseason in 2015 should be an extremely reasonable expectation in Berkeley. The Pac-12 has been warned.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Cal’s Offense for 2015

The nation’s 10th-ranked scoring offense in 2014 should be even more prolific. Junior quarterback Jared Goff, who already has passed for 7,481 yards and 53 touchdowns, could own Cal’s career records in both categories by midseason. The Bears expect Goff to have even more command of the fast-tempo, no-huddle Bear Raid offense. “He just knows what he’s looking for,” Cal coach Sonny Dykes says.

A versatile running back corps is led by senior Daniel Lasco, who rushed for 1,115 yards last season. Sophomore Vic Enwere, now 6’1”, 225 pounds, could be the power back missing from Cal’s arsenal. Wide receiver remains Cal’s deepest position group, featuring senior Bryce Treggs (150 career receptions) and junior Kenny Lawler, who at 6’3” with huge hands topped the Bears in every receiving category last season. Stephen Anderson, Maurice Harris, Trevor Davis and Darius Powe combined for 115 catches.

Progress on the offensive line has been tangible, and Dykes envisions more improvement. The goal in spring was not merely to settle who would win the two vacant O-line spots but also to develop a group that goes nine or 10 deep, and Dykes feels like the Bears did that.

Previewing Cal’s Defense for 2015

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

How inept were the Bears on defense a year ago? Cal gave up the mind-blowing total of 61 touchdowns, allowing each of its final 10 opponents to score at least 31 points. The defense should be better but must demonstrate its ability to hold up against the pass. With neither a consistent rush on the passer nor the ability to cover in the secondary, the Bears allowed 42 TD passes, most ever by a Power 5 team.

The Bears believe their defensive line will be improved after signing six new players at the tackle or end positions, including junior college transfer DeVante Wilson, who began his career at USC. Back after missing last season with mononucleosis is end Kyle Kragen, identified by defensive coordinator Art Kaufman as the team’s best D-lineman in spring ball. Mustafa Jalil had a solid season and may be ready to become a force in the middle. James Looney, a transfer from Wake Forest, likely will line up alongside Jalil.

Linebackers Hardy Nickerson, Jalen Jefferson and Michael Barton have combined to start 54 career games, but the secondary remains, without question, Cal’s biggest area of concern. Five new defensive backs were part of the recruiting class, but only Derron Brown, a junior college safety, was on campus for spring ball. Four returning safeties sat out while mending, prompting Dykes to label the position “a mess.” Stay tuned.

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

Previewing Cal’s Specialists for 2015

There was nothing special about Cal’s kicking units last season, but at least they were improved from 2013, when the Bears allowed six touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns. Still, Cal hopes to see improvement in about every category here. Cole Leininger returns as the punter, but placekicker is up for grabs. Trevor Davis, who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns at Washington State, may add punt return duties.

Final Analysis

Cal was one of the nation’s most-improved teams. But the Bears were far from satisfied after losing six of their final seven games to miss out on the postseason for the third straight year. “We could have taken the program to the next step,” Lawler says, “but we just came up short.” 

No one in the program will be happy with anything less than a bowl game and the chance to compete near the top of the Pac-12 North. Defense remains Cal’s great unknown, and the road schedule is daunting. But Goff says the team is ready for something different. “There’s so much more confidence on our team,” Goff says. “Expectations are very high.”

The Debate

Is Jared Goff the Best QB in the Pac-12?

Click here to join the debate.


#48 Texas Tech Red Raiders





HEAD COACH: Kliff Kingsbury, 12-13 (2 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eric Morris | DEF. COORDINATOR: David Gibbs

Kliff Kingsbury has had an interesting two-year start to his head-coaching career at Texas Tech. Year One featured big offensive numbers and an impressive postseason victory over Arizona State. Year Two featured another undisciplined team, seven Big 12 losses and no postseason. Kingsbury has plenty of talent, both as a coach and on his depth chart, but has to correct his team’s sloppy play if Tech expects to get back to a bowl game in 2015.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Texas Tech’s Offense for 2015

Texas Tech’s quarterbacks production was up and down throughout the 2014 season. Sophomore Davis Webb started the team’s first eight games before being shut down for the season due to a shoulder injury. True freshman Patrick Mahomes replaced Webb in the lineup and showed enough promise to emerge as a strong candidate to earn the job in the fall.

The offense as a unit was inconsistent and prone to turnovers. But with eight starters back, the Red Raiders are hoping to build on the last few games of the year when they finally seemed to get things on track.

The two strengths are the starting offensive line, which will return four veterans, including all-conference left tackle Le’Raven Clark, and running back, led by DeAndre Washington. The Red Raiders are looking for consistency at receiver as a young group turned in an uneven performance in 2014. Jakeem Grant is the leader of the pack, and the shifty senior should be a versatile weapon for the offense. Devin Lauderdale and Ian Sadler both emerged late in the year, but they’ll need to build upon that success if Texas Tech is to take a step forward this fall. The coaches are hoping that junior Reginald Davis will step up — he has loads of talent but has yet to realize his potential.

Ultimately, the Red Raiders’ offense will go as the quarterback goes. If the winner between Webb and Mahomes can limit turnovers and produce at an above-average level, Texas Tech should return to the postseason in 2015. 

Previewing Texas Tech's Defense for 2015

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

The word of the offseason around the Texas Tech football office is turnovers. The offense is focused on reducing the amount committed, and the defense, led by new coordinator David Gibbs, is focused on forcing them.

Gibbs’ defense at Houston did a fantastic job of forcing turnovers over the last two seasons, and the hope in Lubbock is that he can duplicate some of that magic on the South Plains.

In the secondary, Gibbs will have some experience and potential with which to work, including sophomore corner Nigel Bethel and safety Keenon Ward. At linebacker, senior Micah Awe is the only experienced, veteran piece. But there are interesting options, including linebacker Dakota Allen and former five-star prospect and Ohio State transfer Mike Mitchell.

The defensive line returns all but one player, including Big 12 sack leader Pete Robertson (12 sacks in 2014) at one end and senior Branden Jackson on the other. Things must improve on the interior, however, as former junior college transfers Rika Levi and Keland McElrath are being relied upon to take big steps forward, which they appeared to do in the spring. It’s a unit that must improve if Tech is to make a bowl, and things appear to be moving in the right direction. 

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

Previewing Texas Tech’s Specialists for 2015


Clayton Hatfield, a former U.S. Army All-American Bowl selection, will compete with Michael Barden and Taylor Symmank for the starting placekicking job. Hatfield has a big leg and likely has the edge. Symmank is expected to be the Red Raiders’ starting punter. The coverage units should take another step forward with an influx of young talent from among the incoming freshmen. 

Final Analysis

In Year 3 of Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure, two things are very clear: The offense must find some consistency and the defense simply has to be better. The addition of Gibbs should help stabilize the ailing defense, but all bets are off until they hit the field this fall. The big key, however, is at quarterback. The winner of the Mahomes vs. Webb battle must play at a high level for Texas Tech to return to form.

The Debate

Where Does DeAndre Washington Rank Among Big 12 RBs?

Click here to join the debate.