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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#73 Oregon State Beavers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#73

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Gary Andersen, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dave Baldwin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kalani Sitake

As far as surprising coaching moves during the 2015 offseason, Oregon State was the epicenter. On one end, longtime overachiever Mike Riley left for Nebraska after 12 seasons in his second stint with the Beavers. On the other, Oregon State pulled Gary Andersen from Wisconsin. Andersen is a proven coach, but he walks into an uncertain situation with only two returning defensive starters starters from a 5-7 team and a new quarterback replacing the productive veteran Sean Mannion.

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Previewing Oregon State’s offense in 2015 
 

New offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin is installing an up-tempo spread system that needs a quarterback to beat defenses with his arm, legs and mind. And coming out of spring practice, the Beavers had three players with zero college experience vying for that starting job in redshirt freshmen Nick Mitchell and Marcus McMaryion and true freshman early enrollee Seth Collins. 

The good news is that the Beavers will have proven pieces surrounding whoever wins that quarterback job. Senior running back Storm Woods looks primed to push for 1,000 yards after splitting carries the last two seasons. The returning receivers are headlined by speedster Victor Bolden (72 receptions, 798 yards, two touchdowns in 2014) and Jordan Villamin, a 6'4", 235-pound physical specimen who broke out for 35 catches, 578 yards and six touchdowns during the second half of last season. Caleb Smith possesses physical gifts at tight end. 

The line brings back all five players who started the final four games of the season, including center Josh Mitchell and left tackle Sean Harlow. Also expected back is star Isaac Seumalo, who missed all of 2014 and spring practice while recovering from two foot surgeries. And watch out for Ryan Nall, a redshirt freshman who boasts unique athleticism and versatility. He took snaps at H-back, tight end and running back in the spring.   

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

Previewing Oregon State’s Defense in 2015 
 

The Beavers are moving to a 3-4 base defensive front under new coordinator Kalani Sitake, allowing linemen such as Kyle Peko (if he can get academically eligible), Jaswha James and Jalen Grimble to plug the interior while an impressive crop of young linebackers make plays. Those linebackers — highlighted by sophomore Darrell Songy and redshirt freshman Bright Ugwoegbu — offered one of the most pleasant surprises of the spring after the Beavers lost all three starters from last season’s squad. 

The secondary also lost a trio of starters but returns cornerback Larry Scott, who has improved his coverage technique dramatically after an uneven 2014, and a pair of safeties with a nice blend of physicality and playmaking instincts in Cyril Noland-Lewis and Justin Strong. The top position battles on the back end are at the other cornerback spot, where Dwayne Williams looks primed to step in for former standout Steven Nelson after wowing on the scout team as a true freshman in 2014; and nickel back, where walk-on Devin Chappell has quickly morphed into one of this squad’s biggest feel-good stories. 

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

Previewing Oregon State’s Specialists in 2015 
 

Oregon State returns kicker Garrett Owens, who nailed 11-of-13 field-goal attempts (including a long of 46 yards) while splitting time with Trevor Romaine last season. The other specialist spots, however, will have new faces in punter Nick Porebski and long snapper Connor Kelsey. Bolden, Rahmel Dockery and Chris Brown have experience as returners. 

Final Analysis
 

Oregon State has been trumpeting the “new era” motto, and for good reason. After former coach Mike Riley pulled off arguably the biggest stunner of the coaching carousel by bolting for Nebraska, Oregon State’s luring Gary Andersen away from Wisconsin was almost as shocking. Andersen rebuilt Utah State in a short time and has hired a top-notch staff to help him do the same in Corvallis. But with so much youth at quarterback, plus a slew of holes to fill on a defense that will consistently match up against some of the nation’s most potent offenses, can Oregon State expect to contend for a bowl game in a loaded Pac-12? The Beavers are likely still at least a year away from making serious progress in the win/loss column.  

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#78 Bowling Green Falcons

NATIONAL FORECAST

#78

MAC East PREDICTION

#1

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

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

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Previewing Bowling Green’s Offense for 2015

 

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

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

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

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

Previewing Bowling Green’s Defense for 2015

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

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

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

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

Previewing Bowling Green’s Specialists for 2015

 

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

Final Analysis

 

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

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




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#75 Toledo Rockets

NATIONAL FORECAST

#75

MAC West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Matt Campbell, 26-13 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jason Candle | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jon Heacock

As consistent as Toledo has been as a program — five consecutive winning seasons — the Rockets are more than 10 years removed from their last MAC championship and last division title. After winning nine games and finishing 7-1 in the league, Toledo has the goods to contend again, provided the Rockets can find an answer on a completely rebuilt offensive line.

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Previewing Toledo’s Offense in 2015
 

The most important person around the Rockets’ program in the offseason was offensive line coach Tom Manning, since his unit likely holds the key to Toledo’s 2015 season. The Rockets have a wealth of experienced and proven skill position players but lost five senior starters on the offensive line, including three all-conference performers. 

The rebuild could not be more significant. Left tackle Storm Norton filled in for three games last season due to an injury, but beyond him the Rockets hope to get rapid development and productive play from a host of newcomers. Depending on that line will be running back Kareem Hunt, a first team all-conference pick and 1,600-yard rusher a season ago who had 271 yards and five touchdowns in the GoDaddy Bowl win over Arkansas State.

Phillip Ely and Logan Woodside both started and were productive at quarterback last season before injuries forced them to the sidelines. Ely returns from knee surgery, while Woodside rehabs a serious ankle injury. Ely, who transferred from Alabama two years ago, might have the edge in the derby to earn the starting job, but both he and Woodside have demonstrated they can make this offense explosive.

The fireworks through the air usually involve three-time all-conference wide receiver Alonzo Russell, a 6'4" target who caught 51 passes for 770 yards and eight scores last season. Speedy slot receiver Corey Jones had a team-high 68 receptions a year ago.

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

Previewing Toledo’s Defense in 2015
 

Toledo’s deck is full of options on this side of the ball, where depth and athleticism are plentiful. The crew up front comprises the deepest and likely the most talented unit in the program, and the group is led by returning all-conference tackles Treyvon Hester and Orion Jones. End Trent Voss led MAC linemen in tackles last season with 77. Adding depth at tackle are Chris Collins and Marquise Moore, both of whom have starting experience, while returning starter Allen Covington had 29 stops last season at end. 

The Rockets return veteran Chase Murdock at linebacker, where he could be joined by Jaylen Coleman, Ju’Wuan Woodley or Zach Quinn once the position battles play out. 

After being decimated by injuries the last two seasons, the secondary boasts four cornerbacks with significant starting credentials — Cheatham Norrils and Cameron Cole, the 2013 starters who missed last season with injuries, and 2014 starters Jordan Martin and Christian Dukes. The safeties will come from the group of Chaz Whittaker, UAB transfer Rolan Milligan, DeJuan Rogers and Delando Johnson.
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Toledo’s Specialists in 2015

The kicking game is a big question mark after the departure of three-time All-MAC kicker Jeremiah Detmer. Sophomore Sam Vucelich has the inside track to man that position. Junior Nick Ellis returns at punter, but he needs to improve on his league-worst 36.6-yard average. The strength of the special teams is likely the return game. Jones averaged 11.8 yards on his league-high 24 punt returns in 2014.

Final Analysis
 

Toledo has the luxury of playing seven home games in 2015, and the Rockets return of plenty of playmakers on defense and some extremely talented individuals at running back and receiver. But all of the optimism has to be tempered by the fact that Toledo has gone from having one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country last year with five senior starters to having one of the least experienced this time around. The development of that new line is the key to the season. If the offensive line grows up fast, the Rockets should be a championship-caliber team in 2015.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#72 East Carolina Pirates

NATIONAL FORECAST

#72

American Athletic PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Ruffin McNeill, 37-27 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dave Nichol | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rick Smith

East Carolina enters 2015 without three of the key cogs of its offense — quarterback Shane Carden, receiver Justin Hardy and coordinator Lincoln Riley. Those are major departures, but with eight bowl games in the last nine seasons, the Pirates are rarely out of the mix.

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Previewing East Carolina’s Offense for 2015 
 

Some of the Pirates’ top swashbucklers are gone, including offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (off to Oklahoma) and the AAC Player of the Year, quarterback Shane Carden. That doesn’t mean the Air Raid offense is taking on water. New OC Dave Nichol is confident that strong-armed sophomore Kurt Benkert can step in and keep the ship on course.

There’s still a treasure chest of receivers, even without Justin Hardy and Cam Worthy (who combined for 2,510 yards and 14 scores last year). Returnees such as Isaiah Jones (81 catches, second on the team), Davon Grayson, Jimmy Williams and Trevon Brown will share Benkert’s booty in the passing game. Don’t count out eagerly anticipated freshman Deondre Farrier, who was wooed by Florida, Miami and USC, among others. 

In a subtle tweak, 6'6", 250-pound Bryce Williams might be listed as an inside receiver in the spread but actually is an old-fashioned tight end. He will see more action than just around the goal line, where he terrorizes defensive backs and linebackers. On the ground, Chris Hairston (6.7 yards per carry) and a couple of other solid candidates operate behind a big, veteran offensive line that will be a strength of the team under new line coach Brad Davis. 

The big concern is that Benkert threw only 10 passes last year. He was a quick study in the spring, and the offense should again set sail, maybe with a more stellar running game to punch up the red-zone offense. 

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

Previewing East Carolina’s Defense for 2015 
 

The Pirates like to stop the run — they were 11th in the nation, allowing just 111.8 rushing yards per game — and get after opponents on third down (13th, yielding just 34.2 percent conversions). 

Linebacker Zeek Bigger is the returning tackles leader (140), but fellow senior Montese Overton should be the next big thing. He has all the tools. Physical Devaris Brunson is back from his knee injury in the middle, too, and walk-on Joe Allely just keeps improving on the weak side. Incoming junior college linebacker Darius Wright will get a long look, too. 

The backers will need help from a rebuilding front. End Johnathon White is the only returning starter, and he’ll get a push from K’Hadree Hooker. Terrell Stanley has made a dramatic return from injuries suffered in an auto accident that sidelined him last year. He was honorable mention All-C-USA in 2013. Former Georgia Tech signee Darius Commissiong could figure in, too. 

Senior cornerback Josh Hawkins is a ball hawk who had five interceptions and broke up 11 more passes. Free safety Travon Simmons and corner Rocco Scarfone came on strong late last year and look assured of jobs as well in a deep, experienced secondary.

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

Previewing East Carolina’s Specialists for 2015 
 

Texas A&M transfer Davis Plowman is the favorite to fill Warren Harvey’s shoes as the placekicker, and that won’t be easy after Harvey set the career ECU scoring record. Punter Worth Gregory averaged 43.6 yards, put 19 kicks inside the 20-yard line and had 13 50-yard boots on his way to Ray Guy Award consideration. 

Final Analysis 
 

Ruffin McNeill, on a cane all spring after hip surgery, can stand tall with what he has done in Greenville at his alma mater. The Pirates were 5–3 in their first year in the American Athletic Conference and went to their fourth bowl in McNeill’s five seasons. He graduated the leading passer in school history and the FBS’s all-time receptions leader (Hardy), but he had a 105-man roster out in spring, certainly a sign of a healthy program. If his young quarterback comes through, it looks like he has another bowl team to lean on.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#71 Colorado State Rams

NATIONAL FORECAST

#71

MW Mountain Division PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Mike Bobo, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Will Friend | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tyson Summers

Colorado State is coming off its best season since 2002, a 10-3 season that saw the Rams challenge for a Mountain West title and propel coach Jim McElwain to the Florida job. After four seasons of improving its win total, Colorado State enters uncertain territory with new coach Mike Bobo, the former offensive coordinator at Georgia.

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Previewing Colorado State’s Offense for 2015  
 

Quarterback Garrett Grayson, who rewrote Colorado State’s passing record book, is gone, as is last year’s leading rusher, Dee Hart. There’s a new coach in Mike Bobo and a new offense he brought with him from Georgia to learn. But three starters on the offensive line are back, as is receiver Rashard Higgins. A finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s outstanding receiver last year, Higgins led the nation in receiving yards (1,750) and touchdown catches (17).

Sophomore quarterback Nick Stevens, last year’s backup, picked up the new offense quickly during spring practices and seemed to have a pretty good grasp of what he’ll be expected to do this fall. The quarterbacks in Bobo’s pro-style offense have to make a number of reads at the line of scrimmage to get the offense into the right play based on what the defense is showing.

Fullbacks have returned to the CSU offense in an effort to build a powerful ground game that will wear opponents down. Sophomore Dalyn Dawkins, a transfer from Purdue, impressed coaches with his toughness this spring and could emerge as the primary running back over returnees Treyous Jarrells (87 carries for 450 yards and six touchdowns in 2014) and Jasen Oden (46 carries, 276 yards, two touchdowns), both seniors.

The Rams have two of the top tight ends in the Mountain West in seniors Steven Walker, a returning all-conference performer, and Kivon Cartwright.

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

Previewing Colorado State’s Defense for 2015 
 

The Rams are moving from a 3-4 base to a 4-3 under new coordinator Tyson Summers, who directed one of the nation’s top defensive units last year at UCF. The biggest change, players say, is that defensive linemen are being asked to make plays themselves instead of filling gaps so the linebackers can come in and make the tackles.

The Rams return four starters in the secondary, where senior safeties Kevin Pierre-Louis (85 tackles) and Trent Matthews (54 tackles) and junior nickel back Preston Hodges (69 tackles) are the top returning tacklers on the defense. Junior cornerback Tyree Simmons had a strong spring.

The strength of the defense, though, is likely to be the linebackers, Bobo says. Juniors Kevin Davis and Deionte Clyburn played a lot as backups last fall, and sophomore Kiel Robinson was a top performer in spring drills. Senior Cory James returns on the outside, where he has 21 sacks over the past three seasons, including a team-leading 6.5 in 2014. 
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Colorado State’s Specialists for 2015  
 

Junior punter Hayden Hunt returns after averaging 43.8 yards a kick last season. But the Rams have to replace kicker Jared Roberts, who scored 270 points over the past four seasons and set a Mountain West record by making 111 consecutive PATs. Deointe Gaines is back to return kicks after averaging 24.9 yards as a true freshman, and senior Joe Hansley averaged 9.7 yards on six punt returns last season. Bobo retained three of former coach Jim McElwain’s assistants, including special teams coordinator Jeff Hammerschmidt. So the Rams won’t be making the kind of wholesale changes in the kicking game that they’re making on offense and defense.

Final Analysis
 

It will be hard to match the success the Rams had last season, when they won nine games in a row and posted only the fifth 10-win season in school history. There’s bound to be a drop-off as they learn new schemes and replace key players. McElwain left the program in good shape, though, with solid depth at most positions and some talented players who are ready to step into starring roles. A third consecutive bowl appearance is well within reach.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#69 WKU Hilltoppers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#69

C-USA East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Jeff Brohm, 8-5 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tyson Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Holt

As far as entertainment value, there was no better ticket in college football late last season than Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers defeated Marshall in overtime and then defeated Central Michigan in a bowl game. The two games totaled 230 points and each were decided by one point. With seven starters — including a quarterback and running back — returning on offense, WKU is built for fireworks again.
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Previewing WKU’s Offense for 2015 
 

Conference USA opponents, especially the defensive coordinators, must have gasped when the NCAA granted WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty a sixth season with a medical hardship waiver. Combined with running back Leon Allen, no QB-RB duo in FBS history has matched their staggering numbers of last season. Doughty led the nation with 4,830 passing yards, and Allen ran for 1,542, giving them a combined 6,372 yards, surpassing the previous record of 5,840 yards set by Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III (4,293) and running back Terrance Ganaway (1,547) in 2011. 

The Hilltoppers set or tied 50 offensive team and individual records. Only five quarterbacks since 1956 have thrown more than Doughty’s 49 touchdown passes that also led the nation. 

So much for the Hilltoppers’ offense taking a step back with the departure after one year of coach Bobby Petrino to Louisville. Rookie coach Jeff Brohm put the offense into an even higher gear, and more of the same can be expected with the return of three starters on the line — left tackle Forrest Lamp and guards Brandon Ray and Darrell Williams.

Also back is Doughty’s favorite target, senior receiver Jared Dangerfield, who had a school-record 69 catches for 825 yards and 11 touchdowns. Allen also is a receiving threat; his 476 yards pushed him over 2,000 yards from scrimmage.

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

Previewing WKU’s Defense for 2015 
 

The Hilltoppers have a lot of catching up to do on the opposite side of the ball. The return of seven starters, plus the addition of UAB transfer Jontavious Morris, should improve a unit that nationally ranked 120th in total defense and 121st in scoring defense.

The top four tacklers return, including senior middle linebacker Nick Holt, the heart and soul of the defense. The son of defensive coordinator Nick Holt Sr., Holt had 111 tackles. Also returning to flank Holt at outside linebacker is senior Dejon Brown, who was second on the team with 78 tackles.

Morris isn’t listed as a returning starter for WKU, but he would have been for UAB had it not disbanded its program. At 6'2", 295 pounds, he will plug the middle at tackle after playing nose guard for the Blazers.

Strong safety Branden Leston and free safety Marcus Ward each had 63 tackles. Lesten led the team with four interceptions, while senior cornerback Wonderful Terry was indeed wonderful on his two interceptions, returning both for touchdowns. 

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

Previewing WKU’s Specialists for 2015 
 

Kicker Garrett Schwettman and punter Joseph Occhipinti return. Schwettman had plenty of extra-point attempts to go with making 16-of-21 field-goal tries. The Hilltoppers didn’t do a lot of punting, but when they did, Occhipinti averaged 37.1 yards per try. Sophomore Kylen Towner has emerged as a reliable returner on kickoffs and punts. He averaged 22.7 on kickoff returns, including one of 94 yards for a score.

Final Analysis
 

Few programs have transitioned to the FBS level as well as WKU, which is just six years into its move up from FCS. Of 27 teams to make the jump since 1987, only eight reached a second bowl game during a six-year window. Eight of 20 head coaching openings in the country last year were filled by first-time head coaches, and Brohm was the only one of the eight to win a bowl game.

With all the offensive weapons returning, especially Doughty and Allen, the Hilltoppers will continue to score points. If the defense can at least start to slow teams down, WKU is poised to make that next jump to becoming a consistent Conference USA challenger. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#68 San Diego State Aztecs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#68

MW West Division PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Rocky Long, 32-20 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Horton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rocky Long

Under Brady Hoke and Rocky Long, San Diego State has become a regular winner, reaching five consecutive bowl games. The bar has been raised enough to where last season’s 7-6 season qualifies as a disappointment. The Aztecs should continue to contend in the Mountain West, but their ceiling may depend on the health of a transfer quarterback from Kentucky.

Follow Athon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing San Diego State’s Offense for 2015
 

Transfer quarterback Maxwell Smith distanced himself from second-stringer Christian Chapman and Oregon transfer Jake Rodrigues in spring drills and gives San Diego State an experienced leader. Smith is a former starter at Kentucky and is battled-tested after facing sturdy SEC defenses. He could excel in the Mountain West.

Running back Donnel Pumphrey rushed for a school-record 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore, and he is on pace to join Marshall Faulk (4,589), Larry Ned (3,562) and Ronnie Hillman (3,243) as the only rushers in school history to reach 3,000 career yards. The 5'9", 170-pound Pumphrey has proven he can carry a huge workload, and San Diego State plans to rely heavily on him again this season. 

The Aztecs are hoping that Eric Judge (24 receptions last season) will step up as a go-to receiver, and Lloyd Mills (22) should be the other starter after the dismissal of Larry Clark. The offensive line suffered a blow when starting center Lenicio Noble and backup guard Paul Rodriguez were booted from the squad, but the unit returns starting guards Nico Siragusa and Darrell Greene.

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

Previewing San Diego State’s Defense for 2015
 

The Aztecs allowed just 19.8 points per game last season and received good news when cornerback J.J. Whittaker and middle linebacker Jake Fely were awarded an extra season of eligibility. Both players missed large parts or all of multiple seasons due to injuries, and the welcome development makes San Diego State’s defense even sturdier. 

Big-play outside linebacker Calvin Munson is the star of the unit after leading the team with four interceptions and with 10.5 tackles for a loss, including a team-high four sacks. Fely has started 30 career games but was healthy for just three contests last season. 

The return of Whittaker (two interceptions) means that all five secondary starters in the Aztecs’ 3-3-5 alignment are returning. Cornerback Damontae Kazee broke up 13 passes last season, and safeties Malik Smith (three interceptions), Na’im McGee and Trey Lomax all had solid campaigns in 2014 and should be even better this fall. 

Defensive end Alex Barrett had nine tackles for a loss before having his season cut short by a foot injury, and nose tackle Christian Heyward has the potential to mix it up in the interior.

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

Previewing San Diego State’s Specialists for 2015
 

Donny Hageman was an improvement over San Diego State’s 2013 kicking fiascos, but his 20-of-25 field-goal campaign didn’t come without a glitch. Hageman had a chance to be a hero in the Poinsettia Bowl but missed a 34-yarder with 20 seconds left to allow Navy to post a 17–16 victory. He has a solid leg on kickoffs, which often helps with field position. Junior college transfer Tanner Blain likely will be the punter to replace departed Joel Alesi. Mills is a solid punt returner who took one back for a score in 2014.

Final Analysis

San Diego State has gone to five consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history and has been steady but not spectacular in four seasons under coach Rocky Long’s leadership. The seven victories in 2014 were the Aztecs’ fewest since 2009 (under Brady Hoke), and there is now an expectation of a winning season and bowl game appearance every year. 

If Smith can avoid the injuries that hindered him at Kentucky and can provide the downfield passing attack San Diego State lacked last season, the Aztecs will be a solid threat to reach the Mountain West title game. The defense is strong enough for San Diego State to win the division crown, and there is enough overall talent for the Aztecs to set winning the conference championship as a legitimate goal.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#66 Washington State Cougars

NATIONAL FORECAST

#66

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#5

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

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

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Previewing Washington State’s Offense for 2015
 

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

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

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

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Previewing Washington State’s Defense for 2015


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

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

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

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

Previewing Washington State’s Specialists in 2015 


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

Final Analysis


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

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#65 Rutgers Scarlet Knights

NATIONAL FORECAST

#65

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#7

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

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

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Previewing Rutgers’ Offense for 2015


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

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

Previewing Rutgers’ Defense for 2015

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

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

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


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

Previewing Rutgers’ Specialists for 2015


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

Final Analysis

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

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#63 UCF Knights

NATIONAL FORECAST

#63

American Athletic East PREDICTION

#3

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

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

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Previewing UCF’s Offense for 2015


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

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

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

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


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

Previewing UCF’s Defense for 2015

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

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

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

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

Previewing UCF’s Specialists for 2015


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

Final Analysis  


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




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