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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#60 Indiana Hoosiers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#60

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Kevin Wilson, 13-34 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Johns | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian Knorr

There is no doubt that 2015 is a big year for Kevin Wilson at Indiana. The Hoosiers have clearly gotten better under Wilson during his time in Bloomington, but this program has fallen just short of taking the next step — aka, get to a bowl game. The Big Ten East has gotten tougher, so Indiana will have to continue to show improvement (and stay healthy) if it wants to reach the postseason.

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Previewing Indiana’s Offense for 2015
 

It’s challenging for a coach to be optimistic when he’s lost the best running back in school history, but that is Kevin Wilson’s assignment with Tevin Coleman gone. It’s Year 5 for Wilson. He’s learned the Hoosiers cannot win by simply throwing (first three seasons) or running (Coleman had more than 2,000 yards last year).

The promise IU showed last season dissolved after quarterback Nate Sudfeld suffered a shoulder injury. IU was forced to play a fourth-stringer (Zander Diamont) who beat only Purdue in the season finale. Sudfeld returns for his senior season but must be more accurate than he was before his injury.

Wilson scrambled to minimize the loss of Coleman by recruiting one of the best backs available — Jordan Howard, who ran for nearly 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns at UAB before the Blazers dropped their program. Howard lacks Coleman’s big-play speed, but he’s a tough, durable kid. Tommie Mister should emerge as the backup after recovering from knee surgery

Sudfeld needs help from his receivers. After last season Wilson determined that the group was undersized. He’s tried to fix that by adding 6'2" Marqui Hawkins, another former UAB  player, and junior-college transfer Camion Patrick, also 6'2". Jordan Fuchs is the frontrunner at tight end, while tiny J-Shun Harris has the speed to excel at slot receiver.

Wilson has worked tirelessly to upgrade the offensive line, and the results showed last season. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney are fierce and dependable anchors.

Previewing Indiana’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.

The numbers would give Nick Saban heartburn, but they signaled improvement for the Hoosiers. The defense improved by allowing 94 fewer yards (down to 433.8) and six fewer points (32.8) per game, but coordinator Brian Knorr’s unit must take the next step of helping Indiana win.

Knorr shifted the Hoosiers into a 3-4 scheme last season. The defensive front features two playmakers — nose tackle Nate Hoff, who averaged one tackle for a loss in his eight starts, and junior Darius Lathum, an acrobatic athlete. Nick Mangieri emerged at Bandit, showing the necessary pass-rushing skills.

Indiana has not produced an NFL Draft pick at linebacker in 27 seasons. That should change soon as sophomore Tegray Scales has the speed to create turnovers. Junior T.J. Simmons and sophomore Greg Gooch will split time in the middle. Don’t be surprised if Dameon Willis, another speedball, outplays Clyde Newton to play outside linebacker.

The secondary wasn’t great last season, and both starting cornerbacks departed. That will be a good thing if Rashard Fant and Donovan Clark can translate their athletic ability into coverage skills. True freshmen will get a legitimate look here. Knorr expects big things from Chase Dutra at safety. He can run and hit. The defensive backfield suffered a huge blow when Antonio Allen was dismissed from the team after an arrest in June. 


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

Previewing Indiana’s Specialists for 2015


Griffin Oakes set a school record with a 58-yard field goal, one of 13 he converted on 18 tries. Erich Toth must improve his 40.7-yard punting average. Harris returned punts and kickoffs but was unable to return any kicks more than 35 yards.

Final Analysis

This year matters for Wilson, who has yet to win more than five games in a season. With three years remaining on his contract, Wilson needs to deliver a bowl trip to earn an extension and love from Indiana’s modest fan base. With three home games and a trip to Wake Forest to open the season, the Hoosiers need a big start before sliding into Big Ten play against Ohio State. If Sudfeld can stay healthy and the defense creates more turnovers, a six-win season is realistic. 

The Debate

Is Nate Sudfeld a Top-Five QB in the Big Ten?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#57 Maryland Terrapins

NATIONAL FORECAST

#57

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Randy Edsall, 20-30 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Locksley | DEF. COORDINATOR: Keith Dudzinski

There are a lot of moving parts for Randy Edsall and the Terrapins in 2015. After a great debut season in the Big Ten that featured a bowl berth, Edsall finds himself replacing his quarterback, his defensive coordinator and 11 other starters from his starting lineup. Maryland could roll through the non-conference schedule but will face one of the Big Ten's toughest conference schedules. Getting to a bowl game would be considered a quality season in College Park.

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Previewing Maryland’s Offense for 2015


Caleb Rowe steps in at quarterback behind a bigger and better offensive line, something that the Terrapins discovered is a prerequisite in the Big Ten. Rowe has missed more time with knee injuries than he has played, but he is a strong-armed passer with enough experience to step in and make things happen, though probably not in the read-option like his predecessor C.J. Brown. The Terrapins also added Oklahoma State transfer Daxx Garman in late May, who is eligible to compete in 2015.

Expect a more pass-friendly offense even without departed receiver Stefon Diggs, and look for the Terrapins to try to put a little oomph in a running game that rated third from the bottom in the Big Ten with just 121.8 rushing yards per game. Leading running backs Brandon Ross and Wes Brown are back, and Juwann Winfree (suspended indefinitely in early June) and Levern Jacobs are proven commodities at receiver.

The big news is the presence of redshirt freshmen Derwin Gray (if he’s back from a spring shoulder injury), Damian Prince and Brendan Moore on a line that has struggled for several seasons. There’s more experience around them and depth behind them, and that facet of the game is Maryland’s best bet to improve.

Previewing Maryland’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.

Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart and his 3-4 defense are gone, as are nearly all of the front seven from a unit that allowed 30.2 points per game and seemed worn down by season’s end. Start the rebuild under new coordinator Keith Dudzinski with what could be a great secondary. All-Big Ten corner William Likely is back, and talented senior safety Sean Davis is making the move to the other corner spot. Look for Likely and Davis to thrive in man-to-man coverage.

Heat-seeking missile Anthony Nixon is back at safety, but where’s the pass rush going to come from? Junior Yannick Ngaouke, who had 13.5 tackles for a loss last season, moves from linebacker to the hybrid Bandit end position, and senior Quinton Jefferson is back from a knee injury and taking his quickness from end to tackle. Abner Logan has all the tools to be a great weak-side linebacker, and coaches loved what they saw from middle linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. in the spring.


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

Previewing Maryland’s Specialists for 2015


Brad Craddock hit 18-of-19 field goal attempts last year, keeping the Terps in a lot of games and winning a couple more. And he spent all summer trying to improve his kickoffs. Coaches love this guy. A freshman, likely big-legged Lee Shrader, will end up as punter in what has been an area of concern in recent years. The Terps are strong in the return game with Likely handling kickoffs and punts. Not only should opponents not throw to his side of the field on defense, but they should stop kicking to him, too. Special teams coach Andre Powell bolted, and the Terps will handle these coaching chores by committee this fall. 

Final Analysis

The Terrapins surprised everyone with a seven-win season out of the gate in their first Big Ten campaign. Okay, okay, Penn State and Michigan — two big Maryland road victims — weren’t exactly Penn State and Michigan last season, but the Terrapins still managed to finish 4–4 in league play.

Moving forward, there are so many variables in play — new quarterback, young but bigger and better offensive line, a new 4-3 defense and just two defensive starters back in the positions they played in 2014 — making the Terrapins a tough team to forecast. Say this at least: They’ve been resilient. Through devastating injuries (they’re just three years removed from a freshman linebacker playing quarterback, and a running back had to play wide receiver last year) and the major move to Midwestern football, the Terrapins have stayed on course, slow and steady.

The Debate

Where Does Maryland Rank As a Coaching Job Among the Big Ten?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#54 Navy Midshipmen

NATIONAL FORECAST

#54

Independents PREDICTION

#2

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.”




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#55 Kentucky Wildcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#55

SEC East PREDICTION

#6

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.

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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?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#58 Northwestern Wildcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#58

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#5

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.

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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?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#56 Boston College Eagles

NATIONAL FORECAST

#56

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#5

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?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#59 Memphis Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#59

American Athletic West PREDICTION

#3

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.

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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.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#53 Iowa Hawkeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#53

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#4

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? 

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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
 

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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.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#50 Houston Cougars

NATIONAL FORECAST

#50

American Athletic West PREDICTION

#1

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.

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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

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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.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#49 BYU Cougars

NATIONAL FORECAST

#49

Independent PREDICTION

#2

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.

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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
 

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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.




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