#14 UCLA Bruins





HEAD COACH: Jim Mora, 37-16 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kennedy Polamalu | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Bradley

With 12 returning starters and a rising star in sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen, the Bruins are the team to beat in the Pac-12 South. There’s some turnover among Rosen’s supporting cast, but UCLA has options at running back and receiver, and the offensive line may not suffer too much despite losing three starters. The defense struggled to stop the run last year, but there’s hope for improvement with the return of end Eddie Vanderdoes from injury. Additionally, defensive end Takkarist McKinley and linebacker Jayon Brown are two players poised for their best season at UCLA. USC might have more overall talent on the roster, but UCLA doesn’t have to play Oregon or Washington in crossover play and hosts the Trojans on Nov. 19. The edge in scheduling is a huge boost to the Bruins’ Pac-12 South title hopes. 

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Previewing UCLA’s Offense

Josh Rosen is aiming to build upon an impressive debut season that earned him Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors. The strong-armed passer threw for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns, although he did have 11 interceptions. Rosen lacks the running ability of his predecessor Brett Hundley, so the Bruins will move from their spread offense toward a more traditional, pro-style scheme that is intended to cater toward the skill-set of Rosen, considered a likely first-round NFL Draft pick when he becomes eligible in 2018, and to better match up against physical teams.

The backfield is deep, even with the loss of all-conference running back Paul Perkins, as Soso Jamabo and Nate Starks proved adept in backup roles last season, each averaging at least six yards per carry.

But depth thins out from there for a group that ranked in the top 30 nationally in total offense last season (465.9 ypg).

The receiving corps lost four of its top five pass catchers. Darren Andrews had 43 receptions, third-most on the team, and will pair up with top recruit Theo Howard and Eldridge Massington, who started nine games as a freshman in 2014 before seeing a limited role as a sophomore.

Gone are also three of the five starters are the offensive line, including former four-year starting center Jake Brendel. Left tackle Conor McDermott is the key to the unit.

Previewing UCLA’s Defense

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Beset by injuries and apparently insufficient size, UCLA proved incapable of stopping the run last season. Three teams totaled at least 300 yards rushing against the Bruins in 2015, and the issue was accentuated in a Foster Farms Bowl loss to Nebraska, which totaled 326 yards on the ground. All-America nose tackle Kenny Clark, who was second on the team in tackles (75) and sacks (six), declared early for the draft, as did linebacker Myles Jack, who appeared in just three games before a season-ending knee injury.

UCLA welcomes back defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes, lost for 2015 because of a torn ACL, and he should bolster the interior. The 6'3", 305-pound Vanderdoes was an all-conference honorable mention selection in 2014 after finishing with 5.5 tackles for a loss, fourth-most on the team.

Leading tackler Jayon Brown, who tallied 93 in 2015, returns, as do linebackers Deon Hollins, a skilled edge rusher, and Isaako Savaiinaea, a sound inside linebacker. Star freshman Mique Juarez may come the closest to emulating Jack’s skill-set, though.

All the starters are back from a secondary that should again be a strength after leading the Pac-12 in pass defense (203.2 ypg). Cornerback Fabian Moreau, who missed most of the year with a foot injury, also returns.

Previewing UCLA’s Specialists 

Freshman JJ Molson, a native of Quebec who enrolled in January before spring practice, takes over for departed Lou Groza Award winner Ka’imi Fairbairn. He has a strong leg as well but no college experience. Another freshman, Austin Kent, takes over as the punter for Matt Mengel, who struggled to average 40 yards per attempt last season.

Final Analysis 

The Bruins again have the talent to challenge for a Pac-12 title, a product of a succession of highly ranked recruiting classes over the last five years under Jim Mora. But they saw six early departures to the NFL Draft, the second-most of any program after Ohio State, with four of them on the offensive side of the ball. That puts a good deal of pressure on Rosen, who is talented but still has just 13 career college starts under his belt and is transitioning to a new offense. The defense, which returns eight starters, can help if it fixes its issues up front. There are enough pieces left that it’s easy to see the Bruins again factoring into a tight Pac-12 South race late in the season.

Five Sun Belt Football Players to Know for 2016

Here are five stars to know from Sun Belt in 2016.
Five Sun Belt Football Players to Know for 2016

The popularity and obsession of the big boys in college football - the Power 5 - has continued to rise. But there still are some very elite football players at the second tier of the FBS rankings - the Group of 5. The Group of 5 term refers to players from teams in the Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC, Sun Belt and American Athletic Conference.

Athlon Sports 2016 College Football Top 25

How does your team stack up for the 2016 season?
Athlon Sports' 2016 Preseason College Football Top 25

Spring practice is over. The NFL Draft has come and gone. National Signing Day seems like it was eons ago. This is the time when the longest offseason in major sports is its most grueling. This is also when optimism flourishes, when no team has a loss and every team has a chance.


Athlon is here to help fill the days between now and that first college football game of the year. After all, it’s preseason magazine season.



#23 Oregon Ducks





HEAD COACH: Mark Helfrich, 33-8 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Lubick | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brady Hoke

Oregon’s streak of seven consecutive double-digit win seasons ended in 2015. However, the Ducks weren’t too far off their usual tally, as coach Mark Helfrich’s team finished 9-4 and suffered three of the four losses by a touchdown or less. As the focus shifts to 2016, Oregon has work to do in order to catch Stanford and Washington in the Pac-12 North this year. The Ducks are hoping a FCS graduate transfer (Dakota Prukop) is the right answer at quarterback, while the defense expects to take a step forward under new coordinator Brady Hoke. There’s plenty of talent in the program, and Oregon catches Stanford and Washington in Autzen Stadium this year. The development of Prukop and improvement on defense will determine just how high Helfrich’s Ducks fly in the North in 2016.

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Previewing Oregon’s Offense

For the second straight season, the Ducks will rely on an FCS graduate transfer at quarterback, this time Montana State All-American Dakota Prukop. He doesn’t have the same magic as a playmaker through the air as predecessor Vernon Adams, but at the FCS level Prukop rushed for 1,763 yards and 24 touchdowns, a dynamic Adams didn’t provide. Coaches also hope they’ve re-established a developmental pipeline that broke down the last two years. Both 2015 recruit Travis Jonsen and 2016 signee Terry Wilson showed promise in spring drills, getting reps ahead of returning veterans Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie.

Running back Royce Freeman deserves to be mentioned with the rest of college football’s outstanding junior running backs such as Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook. Freeman has a shot at surpassing 5,000 yards for his career this season.

The receiving corps lost Bralon Addison to the draft, but junior Charles Nelson is probably even more dynamic, and the plan is for him to play offense full-time after starting at safety late in 2015. Darren Carrington is another big-time playmaker, and tight end Pharaoh Brown looks ready to return from a devastating knee injury suffered in 2014.

The offensive line will rebuild around senior guard Cameron Hunt and junior tackle Tyrell Crosby, who moved to the left side in the spring. The Ducks signed a graduate transfer, Zac Morgan of Dayton, to compete at right tackle, and redshirt freshman Jake Hanson is a promising young center.

Previewing Oregon’s Defense 

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Gone is the 3-4, two-gap defense Oregon has played since 2009. New coordinator Brady Hoke installed a 4-3, one-gap package, and the predominant word in the spring was “aggressive.”

“We will attack,” senior defensive end T.J. Daniel says. “We’ve got one-gap responsibility, and we’re gonna go fast.”

The Ducks don’t appear to have another Arik Armstead or DeForest Buckner up front, but junior Henry Mondeaux has a relentless motor and can play tackle or end. Hoke was hired to replace Don Pellum, who was reassigned to his previous role focusing on linebackers. The unit slipped during his two years splitting time as coordinator, and he’ll try to get the linebackers on track with a boost from former junior college teammates A.J. Hotchkins and Jonah Moi.

The secondary returns essentially intact, a good news/bad news proposition after allowing more than 300 passing yards per game last season. Cornerback Arrion Springs and safety Tyree Robinson are looking to prove themselves as reliable veterans, and sophomore Fotu Leiato provides an intimidating presence at strong safety in Hoke’s new scheme.

Converted receiver Malik Lovette is a breakout candidate.

Previewing Oregon’s Specialists

A year after improbably winning the placekicking job as a walk-on true freshman, Aidan Schneider earned first-team all-Pac-12 honors in 2015 — and a scholarship. He doesn’t have a huge leg, but Schneider was 22-of-24 on field goals as a sophomore, and made all 67 of his extra-point attempts. Punter Ian Wheeler, another guy who joined the Ducks as a walk-on, hasn’t been as consistent the last two years. Among the returners, Nelson could be the top option on both kicks and punts.

Final Analysis 

The Ducks missed Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu last season more than they even imagined. They need Prukop to make as seamless a transition as Adams did, and for Hoke to quickly solidify a defense that ranked among the nation’s worst in 2015. “We just needed a new direction,” head coach Mark Helfrich said upon hiring Hoke. Entering 2016, just which direction Oregon’s program is headed was very much unclear.

The Debate

Is Dakota Prukop one of the top quarterbacks in the Pac-12?

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#22 USC Trojans





HEAD COACH: Clay Helton, 6-4 (1+ year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tee Martin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Clancy Pendergast

USC is one of college football's most intriguing teams to watch in 2016. New coach Clay Helton takes over on a full-time basis, and his first year at the helm features one of the nation’s toughest schedules. The Trojans open against defending national champion Alabama, play at Stanford, Utah, Washington and UCLA and match up against Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona State at home. As if that wasn’t enough for Helton, USC has to break in a new quarterback and is thin on proven options on the defensive line. The Trojans aren’t hurting for talent. However, big question marks remain in Helton’s first year. 

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Previewing USC’s Offense 

Max Browne’s introduction to the pressures of big-time college football will come soon enough. USC’s junior quarterback is expected to make his first start in the season opener against defending National Champion Alabama in Dallas. Browne, taking over for three-year starter Cody Kessler, finally gets his chance four years after being named the National High School Player of the Year. Much of the success or failure of the offense will rest on his strong right arm. Fortunately for Browne and coach Clay Helton, starting his first full-time season on the job, the rest of the offense is experienced and deep. Senior Justin Davis (902 yards, 5.3 average) and sophomore Ronald Jones (987 yards, 6.5 average) form one of the country’s top tailback combinations.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (89 receptions for 1,454 yards and 10 TDs) is an All-America candidate at wide receiver, and the entire offensive line returns intact, led by All-Pac-12 tackle Zach Banner. Helton has stressed the need for the Trojans to return to a more physical style of play, reiterating how he longs to lock up games in the fourth quarter with a bruising running attack. But he also wants to utilize the outstanding athleticism of kids such as Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson, the star cornerback who is a big play waiting to happen as a part-time wide receiver.

Previewing USC’s Defense

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Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast returns to USC, where he was last seen molding a terrific defense in 2013. Replicating that feat this year might be difficult, especially with a defensive line that is alarmingly raw. There are no returning starters up front, and Kenny Bigelow, the nose tackle who was penciled in as the new leader of the group, went down for the season with a knee injury in spring practice. Not that the Trojans are lacking in large bodies with considerable potential. Promising linemen Noah Jefferson and Rasheem Green were in the rotation a year ago. And Porter Gustin, the top defensive end/outside linebacker in Pendergast’s 5-2 alignment, is quick and aggressive.

Cameron Smith, the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, is expected to come back strong after a late-season knee injury at one inside linebacker spot, with sophomore Osa Masina the likely starter at the other inside position, although he was pushed hard by Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell in the spring.

The secondary should be a strength, with Jackson and sophomore Iman Marshall forming a premier pair at cornerback. The depth at safety was accentuated in the spring when returning starters Chris Hawkins and John Plattenburg were battling to keep their jobs among a bevy of talented candidates that include Marvell Tell III and Leon McQuay III.

Previewing USC’s Specialists 

The head coach and quarterback won’t be the only new things at the start of this season. Both kickers will be newcomers as well. Lefty Matt Boermeester takes over as the full-time placekicker, while sophomore Chris Tilbey, whose only experience has been with Australian Rules Football, is the likely new punter. At least senior Zach Smith returns for his fourth year as an excellent snapper. Jackson is a one-man kick returning unit.

Final Analysis

There wouldn’t be so much concern about a new quarterback and an inexperienced defensive line if it weren’t for a schedule that ranks among the toughest in the country. Helton, refreshingly humble compared to his recent predecessors, can’t stop gushing about how fortunate he is to have this job. The talent he has, especially at running back, up front on offense and in the defensive secondary, is good enough to contend for a Pac-12 title. But if he can’t go 9–3 or at least 8–4 with this group, he might not feel so lucky anymore.   

The Debate

Where does Clay Helton rank among new coach hires for 2016?

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#21 North Carolina Tar Heels





HEAD COACH: Larry Fedora , 32-20 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Chris Kapilovic | DEF. COORDINATOR: Gene Chizik

The Tar Heels are coming off a breakthrough year in Larry Fedora’s fourth season in Chapel Hill. North Carolina won 11 games, claimed the Coastal Division title and finished No. 15 in the final Associated Press poll. Both sides of the ball suffered some key losses, but the Tar Heels are reloaded and open 2016 as the favorite to win the Coastal Division once again. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky is expected to have a breakout season in his first year as the starter, while running back Elijah Hood should be one of the best in the nation at his position. Trubisky is also surrounded by a deep group of receivers and one of the ACC’s top offensive lines. The Tar Heels made strides on defense last season, but there’s still a ways to go in coordinator Gene Chizik’s second year.

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Previewing North Carolina’s Offense

North Carolina led the nation in yards per play (7.28) last season and figures to be explosive again despite some new faces. Offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic takes over as offensive coordinator for Seth Littrell, who left to become head coach at North Texas, and fourth-year junior Mitch Trubisky replaces Marquise Williams as the starting quarterback. Even with the changes, the Tar Heels will run the same system at the same frenetic pace that head coach Larry Fedora prefers.

Trubisky is a capable runner and an accurate passer who completed 40-of-47 throws with no interceptions in 2015. He played in 21 games over the last two seasons, so he has experience heading into his first year as the starter. He also has plenty of help around him. Running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan form a powerful 1-2 punch on the ground, and senior wide receivers Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard are dynamic threats in the passing game.

The Tar Heels also welcome back four returning starters and their top reserve on the offensive line. Left guard Caleb Peterson and right tackle Jon Heck enter their fourth year starting for a group that helped UNC rush for a school-record 5.96 yards per carry and allow an ACC-best 1.1 sacks per game.

Previewing North Carolina’s Defense

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UNC’s defense was among the most improved in the nation in 2015, but there’s more room for growth as Gene Chizik enters his second year as defensive coordinator. The Tar Heels allowed 61.9 yards per game fewer and 14.5 points per game fewer than the year before, but they ranked at or near the bottom of the ACC in sacks (1.6 per game), run defense (5.1 yards per carry) and third-down stops (ACC-worst 44.2 percent conversion rate).

UNC could use a big step forward from its defensive line after the Tar Heels allowed 424 rushing yards per game and 6.6 yards per carry in the final three games last season. End Dajaun Drennon and tackle Nazair Jones are the top performers, but they need some help. At least five underclassmen figure to see significant playing time up front. Behind them, linebacker is the position of biggest uncertainty on the roster. Team leaders Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer departed after productive senior seasons, leaving Andre Smith and Cayson Collins to headline an athletic group that lacks experience.

The secondary is in solid shape with three key returners. Cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence both finished in the top five in the ACC in passes defensed last season, and they should be one of the league’s top tandems again. Safety Donnie Miles is looking to improve in pass coverage after establishing himself as a sure tackler with a team-best 128 stops.

Previewing North Carolina’s Specialists 

Switzer is the headliner here, striking fear into opponents every time they punt the ball. He returned two punts for touchdowns last season and has seven such scores for his career, one short of the NCAA record. Kicker Nick Weiler looks to build on an outstanding season in which he made 20-of-23 field goals, including 16-of-17 attempts inside 40 yards.

Final Analysis 

This team will go as far as its new quarterback and unproven defense can take it. The Tar Heels need Trubisky to be as good in a starring role as he was in cameo appearances a year ago. They also need him to stay healthy, because his backups have combined for one career pass attempt. While it’s unfair to expect UNC to improve as much defensively as it did a year ago, more progress is needed in order for the Tar Heels to repeat as Coastal Division champions. The schedule is more difficult this season, leading to less margin for error.

The Debate

Will Mitch Trubisky rank as one of the ACC's best quarterbacks in 2016?

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#20 Florida Gators





HEAD COACH: Jim McElwain, 10-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Doug Nussmeier | DEF. COORDINATOR: Geoff Collins

Florida was one of college football’s biggest surprises last season. The Gators finished 10-4 and claimed the SEC East title under first-year coach Jim McElwain. While McElwain’s first season was a success, there’s plenty of work ahead for this team in 2016. The offense struggled after the suspension of quarterback Will Grier in the second half of last year. Transfer Luke Del Rio is slated to replace Treon Harris under center, but question marks remain on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. Despite losing a couple of key pieces, the defense should remain one of the best in the SEC. Winning the East Division once again will be a challenge, but an improved offense should allow Florida to stay within striking distance of Tennessee and Georgia in 2016. 

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Previewing Florida’s Offense 

In four seasons under Will Muschamp, the Florida Gators had five different starting quarterbacks, three offensive coordinators and some of the nation’s least-productive attacks. Florida hired Jim McElwain to breathe some life into the side of the ball the Gators were known for under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.

Florida showed promise early on, highlighted by a 38-point outburst against Ole Miss. But after the NCAA suspended quarterback Will Grier for violating its policy on performance-enhancing drugs, the Gators went into a tailspin with Treon Harris at the helm.

McElwain now turns to transfer Luke Del Rio, the son of Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, or Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby. The winner of the quarterback race will become Florida’s ninth starting quarterback since Tim Tebow’s final season, in 2009.

Last season, the Gators’ lack of depth and experience up front were hard to overcome. At times UF started three true freshmen and ended the season surrendering a nation-leading 45 sacks. Left tackle David Sharpe is the veteran of the group, while sophomore Martez Ivey looks to live up to his billing as the nation’s No. 1 offensive line recruit in 2015.

McElwain values a physical run game, the backbone of his offenses during four seasons at Alabama (2008-11). Sophomore Jordan Scarlett hopes to emerge from the shadow of 1,000-yard rusher Kelvin Taylor and lead Florida’s trio of tailbacks. Keep an eye on juco transfer Mark Thompson.

Receiver Antonio Callaway is a gamebreaker who averaged 17.6 yards and scored six touchdowns on 69 touches. But the Gators still need more from their receiving corps. 

Previewing Florida’s Defense

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Muschamp left behind the ingredients for a top defense, and new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins did not squander the opportunity. The Gators ranked fourth in the SEC in both total defense and scoring defense in 2015. But the physical and mental fatigue of propping up a moribund offense took its toll, and Florida yielded 503 yards to Michigan during a 41–7 Citrus Bowl beat-down.

The Gators look to bounce back despite losing some key pieces, including two All-Americans (cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and tackle Jon Bullard) and a tone-setting safety (Keanu Neal). Many quality players remain, beginning with All-SEC cornerback Jalen Tabor and one of the SEC’s best linebackers, senior Jarrad Davis. Junior cornerback Quincy Wilson and senior safety Marcus Maye are established SEC talents, giving Florida a top secondary once again.

The Gators’ defensive line is loaded, beginning with tackle Caleb Brantley and end Cece Jefferson. Senior end Bryan Cox Jr. is equally effective against the run and pass, while two young ends — Keivonnis Davis and Jabari Zuniga — have bright futures. Quality depth abounds, too.

Previewing Florida’s Specialists

Placekicker Austin Hardin has moved on after making just 16-of-36 field goals at Florida, opening the door for Eddy Pineiro, a former Alabama commit best known for kicking a 77-yard field goal on YouTube. Punter Johnny Townsend is among the nation’s best and averaged 45.4 yards per kick in 2015. Callaway scored twice as a punt returner.

Final Analysis

McElwain led Florida to a 6–0 start and its first top-10 ranking in three seasons en route to the Gators’ first outright SEC East title since 2009. But a season-ending three-game skid exposed Florida’s deficiencies on offense, and teams outscored the Gators 97–24 during that stretch. Despite the ugly finish, McElwain brought a new vibe to the program, selling out The Swamp four times and overseeing facility upgrades. But to take the next step on the field, McElwain must develop a long-term answer at quarterback.

The Debate

Was Jim McElwain the Best New Coach Hire of 2015?

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#19 Iowa Hawkeyes





HEAD COACH: Kirk Ferentz, 127-87 (17 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Greg Davis | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Parker

The 2015 season was certainly a memorable one for Iowa. The Hawkeyes finished 12-2, claimed the Big Ten’s West Division title and came within a goal-line stand of reaching the College Football Playoff. Considering Iowa had not won more than eight games since 2010 and coach Kirk Ferentz was starting to feel a little heat, last year’s record was a huge surprise. While the Hawkeyes may have trouble repeating last season’s success, this team is the favorite to win the West Division once again. Quarterback C.J. Beathard anchors a solid offense, while the defense returns standout cornerback Desmond King. With a favorable schedule in place, Iowa could once again challenge for 10 (or more) wins.   

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Previewing Iowa’s Offense 

Entering his senior season, C.J Beathard is the focus of two questions that will go a long way in determining Iowa’s success. The first: What can Beathard do for an encore after what he accomplished last season? The second: Can he stay healthy?

Beathard has set the bar high for himself and for the team after leading Iowa to 12–2 record and the Big Ten West Division title. The season ended on a down note as Iowa lost to Michigan State 16–13 in the Big Ten Championship Game before being humiliated by Stanford 45–16 in the Rose Bowl. But it still doesn’t erase or diminish what Beathard and his cohorts accomplished. Sophomore Tyler Wiegers is expected to be Beathard’s backup for the second consecutive season.

Iowa averaged 181.7 rushing yards per game and returns many of the key players who made that happen, including three starters on the offensive line and three of the top four running backs. Senior LeShun Daniels and junior Akrum Wadley combined for more than 1,100 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.

Senior Matt VandeBerg also returns at receiver after leading Iowa in catches (65) and receiving yards (703). Iowa likes to use its tight ends as receivers, and senior George Kittle has shown big-play capability. Six of his 20 catches last season resulted in touchdowns.

Previewing Iowa’s Defense

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The 2016 defense would look a lot better on paper with All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott returning for a fifth season, but his appeal to the NCAA for a medical redshirt was denied. Still, the unit looks formidable without him as eight starters return, including three in a secondary highlighted by Desmond King. The 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner is not only a lock-down cornerback (he tied Iowa’s single-season record with eight interceptions last season) but also one of the Big Ten’s best return specialists.

Three players return on the defensive line with starting experience, including both tackles. Senior Jaleel Johnson and junior Nathan Bazata both started every game inside last season and more than held their own. Johnson showed star potential at times, finishing with 5.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks.

Two of the three linebacker positions have returning starters, led by junior middle linebacker Josey Jewell. He led Iowa with 126 tackles last season, earning second-team All-Big Ten accolades.

Joining King as returning starters in the secondary are senior cornerback Greg Mabin and junior strong safety Miles Taylor. Mabin has started 26 games opposite King the past two seasons. The one hole in the secondary is at free safety, where Jordan Lomax started the past two seasons.

Previewing Iowa’s Specialists

This is arguably the biggest concern on the team, considering both the starting kicker and punter from last season have to be replaced. Sophomore Mick Ellis has the most experience among the placekickers, but he was listed as the backup behind walk-on Miguel Recinos throughout spring practice. Recinos made his only two PATs last season but has not attempted a field goal. Ellis made all seven of his extra-point attempts as a true freshman in 2014 but missed his only field goal attempt. Most of the return duties will be handled by King.

Final Analysis 

It might be asking too much of Beathard and King to lead their supporting cast to another undefeated regular season. But the pieces are in place on both offense and defense for Iowa to be a force again. Keeping Beathard healthy will be paramount to Iowa’s success. The running game also will be crucial, as it was last season. Few teams rely on their running game as much as Iowa, even with Beathard working his magic behind center.

The Debate

Where does C.J. Beathard rank among Big Ten quarterbacks?

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#24 Oklahoma State Cowboys





HEAD COACH: Mike Gundy, 94-47 (11 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Yurcich | DEF. COORDINATOR: Glenn Spencer

Oklahoma State rebounded from a 7-6 record in 2014 to a 10-3 mark last year. The Cowboys have won at least 10 games in two out of the last three seasons under coach Mike Gundy and enter 2016 with a chance to match last year’s victory total. The offense is led by quarterback Mason Rudolph and a deep group of options at receiver headlined by big-play threat James Washington. Improving the ground attack and offensive line is an offseason priority for Gundy. The defense loses standout end Emmanuel Ogbah, but there’s a solid foundation in place with seven returning starters. The schedule presents its share of challenges, as Oklahoma State catches Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma in road matchups.

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Previewing Oklahoma State's Offense

Oklahoma State’s talking points provide plenty of optimism: Nine returning starters contributed heavily to an offense that ranked 22nd nationally in total offense and 14th in scoring. The continued development of quarterback Mason Rudolph, who passed for 3,770 yards and 21 touchdowns. A stable of receivers, led by gamebreaker James Washington, the Big 12’s leading returning receiver after totaling 1,087 yards and 10 touchdowns on 53 receptions a year ago.

What’s not to like?

The running game’s not to like, at least as it performed a year ago, with no guarantees of dramatic improvement going forward. The Cowboys finished No. 114 in rushing in 2015, leaving Rudolph and the receivers to carry the offense, which they did rather well, considering a 10–3 final record and an appearance in the Sugar Bowl. But the lack of a run game was exposed late, just as Oklahoma State rose into College Football Playoff contention, with three straight losses at the finish.

There was blame to go around, with the offensive line unable to open running lanes and the backs lacking the burst to create their own space or make defenders miss. With all five starters back up front, plus the addition of junior college All-American Larry Williams, there’s hope that the unit will be improved. There’s hope, too, that Chris Carson will be better in his second season at running back, while Stanford graduate transfer Barry J. Sanders — the son of Cowboys legend Barry Sanders — also arrives amid promise of amping up the ground attack.

Previewing Oklahoma State's Defense

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The Cowboys defense cratered during that late stretch of losses, surrendering far too many yards and points. Injuries and ultimately fatigue conspired against the defense, which was also left to cover for a suddenly scuffling offense. Now the unit must deal with the loss of All-American end Emmanuel Ogbah and three other valuable starters. And yet, the defense should be improved, pending better health.

Safety Jordan Sterns and linebacker Jordan Burton, first-team All-Big 12 picks, headline a group that features explosive athletes across the board. Young ends Jarrell Owens, Jordan Brailford and Cole Walterscheid played well in auditions as redshirt freshmen a year ago and look to thrive in greater roles. Vincent Taylor, a disruptive force inside, heads a deep tackle rotation.

There’s a physical aggressiveness that marks the back seven, inspired by Burton and Sterns, who combined for 206 stops a year ago as the team’s top tacklers.

Previewing Oklahoma State's Specialists

Placekicker Ben Grogan has been streaky yet has made 49 field goals in three seasons. Zach Sinor thrived as a freshman punter, averaging 40.1 yards per kick with 31 kicks downed inside the 20. McCleskey improved as a punt returner as the season progressed, taking one for a touchdown, and could be dynamic in the role. Carr’s speed is a plus on kick returns. Sanders could get a look there as well.

Final Analysis 

Last season ended in disappointment. Yet 2016 was always pegged as the year the Cowboys would return to prominence both in the Big 12 and nationally. And it still could happen, with a premium quarterback in Rudolph, 16 returning starters and 38 players returning from the bowl two-deep to form a more mature group, both physically and mentally. The running game must make strides. And a testier schedule that involves road trips to face all the league’s other top contenders — Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma — must be navigated. But the Cowboys have the pieces. And it’s a group that captured quality road wins a year ago at Texas, West Virginia and Texas Tech. If they can avoid the major injuries that sideswiped them a year ago, the Cowboys could make a run through the Big 12 and beyond.

The Debate

Where does Mason Rudolph rank among Big 12 quarterbacks for 2016?

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