#58 Appalachian State Mountaineers





HEAD COACH: Scott Satterfield, 22-15 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shawn Clark, Frank Ponce | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nate Woody

Everybody in Boone last year was smiling from ear-to-ear after a tremendous 11-win season. The Mountaineers have as much momentum as anybody in the Sun Belt and should win their first FBS conference title this fall. Key returners are gunslinger Taylor Lamb and all-purpose back Marcus Cox as the offense will be clicking on all cylinders. Additionally, having nine returners on defense won’t hurt either for rising coach Scott Satterfield.

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Previewing Appalachian State’s Offense

Appalachian State led the Sun Belt in total offense last season and should again possess the league’s most potent attack.

Using his mix of durability and speed to rush for 4,088 yards and 43 touchdowns in his first three seasons in Boone, senior running back Marcus Cox should continue to be one of the most productive runners in the league and beyond. He won’t have to carry the load alone as fellow backs Jalin Moore and Terrence Upshaw combined for more than 1,100 yards on the ground last season.

“They’re hard to tackle,” Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield says. “To me, any one of them can play if we need them.”

The backs should have a solid line in front of them. Satterfield says he’s long believed the best way to build offensive line depth is to avoid tying players to single positions. The result is that Appalachian State possesses a group of versatile blockers who should allow it to handle the loss of two starters from last season.

Like Cox, quarterback Taylor Lamb is creeping up in the program’s record books. The junior set a school record for touchdown passes last season with 31 and ranked 10th in the nation in passing efficiency.

Who exactly Lamb’s targets will be remains a question. Three of last season’s top four receivers are gone. Only big-play threat Shaedon Meadors, who caught 21 passes and three touchdowns, returns. Senior Jaquil Capel and sophomore Jaylan Barbour are among the candidates to play increased roles in the passing game.

Previewing Appalachian State’s Defense

While the Mountaineers’ offense will be stout, the defense is what should put them in the mix for a league title. Nine starters return from what was the Sun Belt’s stingiest unit. All-conference linebacker John Law and last season’s leading tackler, Eric Boggs, return at inside linebacker, giving the unit a rock-solid center.

The Mountaineers’ most important loss on this side of the ball was defensive end Ronald Blair, the team’s leader in sacks in each of the past two seasons. Don’t expect any one player to fill Blair’s role; Satterfield says he plans on having several pass rushers rotate through the spot. Look for Nate Norwood, Tyson Fernandez and Olawale Dada to see significant time up front in the Mountaineers’ 3-4 set.

After picking off seven passes and returning two for touchdowns last season, junior cornerback Latrell Gibbs was expected to lead a veteran secondary that returns all but one starter and has an encouraging amount of young depth. However, Gibbs was ruled academically ineligible in early July.

Previewing Appalachian State’s Specialists

Kicker Zach Matics, whose 23-yard field goal on the final play delivered the Mountaineers a victory in the Camellia Bowl, is gone. Freshman Michael Rubino is the likeliest candidate to fill that role. Senior punter Bentlee Critcher has a firm grip on his gig after putting 13 of his 51 kicks inside the 20. Capel should get an opportunity to field kicks as last season’s main return men graduated.

Final Analysis

After Appalachian State fell a game short of its first Sun Belt title and won its first FBS bowl game in dramatic fashion, the Mountaineers erased any potential doubt about their ability to thrive on the FBS level.

A veteran defense and an offense that returns its nucleus should put Appalachian State among the favorites in the league. Throw in a season-opening trip to Tennessee and a Sept. 17 home date with Miami — the first major conference school to play at Kidd Brewer Stadium — and the 2016 season can’t get here soon enough for the Mountaineer faithful.

“That’s the way we want it,” Satterfield says. “We do have high expectations. We expect to compete for a championship in the Sun Belt, and anything less will be a disappointment.”


#60 Minnesota Golden Gophers



Big Ten West Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Tracy Claeys, 2-4 (<1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jay Johnson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jay Sawvel

It’s always tough when a coach steps down in the middle of the year, but Minnesota recovered nicely with wins over Illinois and Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl. Now with the interim tag off, coach Tracy Claeys will see what he is made of with a full season ahead of him in Minneapolis. Running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith should be one of the best backfield tandems in the Big Ten. Expect the duo to carry the offense and junior linebacker Cody Poock to anchor the defense.

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Previewing Minnesota’s Offense

With veteran quarterback Mitch Leidner, a fleet of running back talent and a retooled offensive line, the Minnesota Gophers are convinced they can contend for a Big Ten West title this season.

“Wide receiver — we should be awfully good,” coach Tracy Claeys says. “It’s hard for anybody to argue at tailback [that] we’re pretty good. I would say tight end-wise, we can be as good as anybody. If we get our offensive line straightened out, I think we’ll score a lot more points than we did this last year.”

The Gophers ranked next to last in the Big Ten in scoring, at 22.5 points per game. Claeys, the former defensive coordinator who took over as head coach when Jerry Kill retired last October, fired offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski. Claeys hired Jay Johnson from Louisiana-Lafayette as the new coordinator/quarterbacks coach, and tabbed former Wisconsin assistant Bart Miller to coach the offensive line. To further bolster the O-line, Claeys signed two well-regarded junior college players — right guard Vincent Calhoun and left tackle Garrison Wright.

All this was good news to Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, two running backs who combined for 1,379 yards as freshmen last year.

Previewing Minnesota’s Defense

Things won’t change much on defense under new coordinator Jay Sawvel, promoted from defensive backs coach. Minnesota had the nation’s 11th-best pass defense, but now the Gophers need to replace two outstanding cornerbacks, Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Fortunately for the Gophers, that’s a position where they’ve done some of their best recruiting. Senior Jalen Myrick and sophomore KiAnte Hardin could jump right into starting roles, and there is young talent in reserve.

The linebackers are strength of this defense, led by Jack Lynn and Cody Poock. The pass rush needs work, especially at defensive end. But the Gophers look vastly improved at defensive tackle this spring with Steven Richardson healthy and junior college transfer Merrick Jackson plugging holes.

“I think we are very comparable [on defense],” Claeys says. “We can run in the secondary again, and it will probably be our best speed overall at linebacker.”

Previewing Minnesota’s Specialists

The Gophers need to replace Peter Mortell, whose 44.0-yard punting average was the best in school history. Their best option is Ryan Santoso, who just happens to be the team’s best kicker after making 17-of-21 field goals last year and all 31 extra point attempts. Claeys doesn’t want one person to handle both jobs. Emmit Carpenter could be the placekicker this fall, with Santoso handling the punting and longer field goals. The team’s top kickoff returner (Myrick) and punt returner (Hardin) are both back.

Final Analysis

Most of the skill players are back on offense. Leidner has recovered from foot surgery and is entering his third full year as a starter. His completion percentage improved from 51.5 percent to 59.5 percent the past two years. Claeys addressed the team’s two most glaring holes — offensive line and defensive tackle — with an infusion of junior college talent.

After going 8–5 the previous two years, the Gophers took a step back last season. They finished the regular season at 5–7 and qualified for a bowl game only because the NCAA didn’t have enough six-win teams. But Leidner led them over Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl, snapping the program’s seven-game bowl losing streak.

Minnesota is determined to use that as a springboard, especially with TCU, Michigan and Ohio State coming off the schedule. Added up, the Gophers should return to a bowl game for the fifth straight season.


#59 NC State Wolfpack





HEAD COACH: Dave Doeren, 18-20 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eliah Drinkwitz | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Huxtable

The Wolfpack have earned back-to-back bowl trips under coach Dave Doeren, but the program is still looking to take the next step. Earning a third consecutive postseason appearance won't be easy without quarterback Jacoby Brissett, and the schedule is tougher in 2016. The strength of Doeren's offense is in the backfield, as Matt Dayes headlines a deep stable of promising running backs. 

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Previewing N.C. State’s Offense

NC State has questions at quarterback and the offensive line but has a good stockpile of versatile running backs. Matt Dayes and Jaylen Samuels, who is officially a tight end, combined to score 28 touchdowns last season.

Dayes was on track to become the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2002 before a foot injury sidelined him for the final five games, leaving him with 865 yards. The addition of redshirt freshman Johnny Frasier should take some pressure off Dayes and add a power element to the running game.

The skill players will have to help sophomore Jalan McClendon, who steps in for two-year starter Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. McClendon has a huge arm and good size (6'5", 212) but has only 14 career passing attempts.

Senior Jumichael Ramos had the most catches by a receiver last season with 34 for 457 yards. Freshman tight end Thaddeus Moss, son of NFL legend Randy Moss, has a chance to help the Wolfpack offense right away.

The offensive line, a strength for the past two years, is in for a makeover with only two starters back. Junior Tony Adams is the best of a mostly unproven bunch, though keep an eye on center Joseph Scelfo, a grad transfer from South Alabama.

Previewing N.C. State’s Defense

The strength of coordinator Dave Huxtable’s defensive unit, which ranked No. 29 in the country in total defense in 2015, was the defensive line. It should be again with junior tackles B.J. Hill, Justin Jones and Kentavius Street returning and Bradley Chubb and Darian Roseboro, who combined for 9.5 sacks, back at defensive end.

At linebacker, Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore are a pair of juniors who have taken their lumps and learned on the job. NC State needs to get more production from its linebacking corps, and coordinator Huxtable is hoping that a healthier, more experienced Fernandez can help on that front. Moore led the team with 77 tackles last season.

A little change in the secondary might not be a bad thing. The Wolfpack struggled on pass defense last season and lose their best cover corner in Juston Burris. Junior Shawn Boone, who was slowed by a hamstring injury in the second half of the season, will be counted on to rejuvenate the safety group. Fifth-year senior Niles Clark ended up splitting duties with Dravious Wright at nickel by the end of the season, and the staff is bullish on his coverage skills.

Previewing N.C. State’s Specialists

The Wolfpack made major improvements in the return game, ranking in the top 20 in the country in both punt and kickoff returns. Bra’Lon Cherry ranked third in the ACC and 12th nationally with 13.3 yards per punt return. Nyheim Hines ranked fifth in the ACC and 23rd nationally with 26.3 yards per kickoff return. Both scored a touchdown in the return game. The kicking game took a step back with Kyle Bambard, who struggled through his freshman year, going 7-of-14 on field goal attempts.

Final Analysis

NC State can’t worry about the schedule or the personnel losses on offense or what North Carolina and Duke have done in recent seasons. The only thing coach Dave Doeren wants NC State to worry about is NC State. “My goal for this team is to be the best version of us that we can be,” Doeren says.

Last year, the best version of the Pack was only good enough for a 7–6 finish, a step back from an 8–5 mark in 2014. The Wolfpack will try to get back on track in 2016 but have to do so against a tougher schedule and with some major holes to fill on offense. With a new quarterback and a reworked offensive line, the Wolfpack face an uphill challenge for progress.


#56 Kentucky Wildcats





HEAD COACH: Mark Stoops, 12-24 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eddie Gran, Darrin Hinshaw | DEF. COORDINATOR: D.J. Eliot

After another hot start under Stoops, Kentucky finished 5-7 and missed out on a bowl appearance. The Wildcats hope to take the next step for the program in 2016 as quarterback Drew Barker must lead the charge. The offense won’t miss a beat this year with returning the most starters in the SEC on that side of the ball. The defense on the other hand must make strides under coordinator D.J. Eliot to keep the momentum going for a full season.

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Previewing Kentucky’s Offense

Kentucky will play with its third different offensive coordinator in three seasons this fall, but the arrival of new co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw from Cincinnati has led to renewed optimism about the direction of the offense after one season of struggles with Shannon Dawson at the helm. The new UK assistants inherit a strong nucleus of young talent with nine of the 11 starters from the 2015 season finale back on campus. Former quarterback Patrick Towles, who transferred to Boston College after losing the starting job to Drew Barker, was the only player who recorded a carry or catch last season not to return this spring.

Barker is the odds-on favorite to start at quarterback this fall after completing 35-of-70 passes for 364 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in five games, including two starts, in his debut season. He is joined by a three-headed rushing attack featuring junior All-SEC contender Boom Williams, senior Jojo Kemp and sophomore Mikel Horton. Tight end C.J. Conrad figures to take on a larger role after earning SEC All-Freshman honors in 2015.

Senior center Jon Toth anchors an offensive line that returns four of five starters but needs to improve in obvious passing situations after ranking 85th nationally in sacks allowed (30) last season.

Previewing Kentucky’s Defense

Kentucky’s defense boasts little of the returning experience the offense will lean on this fall.

The Wildcats return just one full-time starter in the front seven, and the returning defensive linemen and linebackers accounted for just 2.5 sacks last season. Following the offseason dismissal of senior outside linebacker Jason Hatcher, sophomores Denzil Ware and Josh Allen will need to take on much of the pass-rushing burden.

A pair of FBS transfers — middle linebacker Courtney Love from Nebraska and outside linebacker De’Niro Laster from Minnesota — could be key in replacing some of the lost production from 2015. Love has been hailed as the defense’s new leader and will be particularly important in leading the way for an inside linebacker group that has almost no returning experience. But Love totaled just six tackles in 12 games as a redshirt freshman at Nebraska in 2014.

The strength of the defense is the secondary, where the Wildcats return almost the entire two-deep, led by SEC All-Freshman corner Chris Westry. Seniors Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson and J.D. Harmon should add a veteran presence to support what could be four sophomore starters.

Previewing Kentucky’s Specialists

Kicking was a significant problem for Kentucky in 2015, with former All-SEC place kicker Austin MacGinnis battling a nagging groin injury and senior punter Landon Foster posting the worst season of his career. Foster, who was otherwise steady in four years as the No. 1 punter, graduated, but MacGinnis returns and reported being back to 100 percent this spring. Freshman punter Grant McKinniss, who was rated as a four-star recruit by Scout, will need to make an immediate impact. UK’s return game has added little excitement in the Stoops era, but Sihiem King showed potential on kickoffs.

Final Analysis

Gran’s Cincinnati offense posted video-game numbers, ranking sixth nationally in passing yards (359.9) and total yards (537.8) per game. Kentucky may need its offense to find similar success to make up for massive turnover on defense. After back-to-back 5–7 seasons that featured second-half collapses, the Wildcats have all eyes set on reaching their first bowl game since 2010. The schedule is never easy in the SEC, but home games against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State combined with the returning talent on offense offer hope Stoops can reach his first bowl game this fall.


#55 Indiana Hoosiers



Big Ten West Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Kevin Wilson, 20-41 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Johns | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Allen

Indiana displayed the improvement fans were looking for by earning a bowl game last season. This year will be no different for the Hoosiers, as coach Kevin Wilson hopes to guide the program to another postseason trip. Losing quarterback Nate Sudfeld will hurt, but Indiana returns talented running back Devine Redding and a solid offensive line. The defense should show improvement behind new coordinator Tom Allen.

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Previewing Indiana’s Offense

Kevin Wilson has shown he can build prolific offenses in the Big Ten, but that doesn’t mean people don’t ask if he can do it again. This time he’ll have to deliver without a quarterback who set multiple school records (Nate Sudfeld), a halfback who ran for more than 1,200 yards (Jordan Howard) and a tackle who earned a prominent spot on NFL Draft boards (Jason Spriggs). Don’t expect Wilson to settle on a quarterback until late summer. Danny Cameron, the walk-on son of LSU offensive coordinator Cam, and junior college transfer Richard Lagow led the competition during the spring. Cameron knows the offense. Lagow has the better arm. IU would like to redshirt Zander Diamont, its most experienced quarterback.

The running game is less unsettled. Devine Redding earned enough snaps when Howard was ailing to run for 1,012 yards and nine touchdowns. Expect him to share time with Camion Patrick, a former wide receiver who missed last season for academic reasons.

At receiver, Wilson has the mixture he loves — a tall, deep threat in Simmie Cobbs, a possession guy in Mitchell Paige and a sharp route-runner in Ricky Jones. Mike Majette and Ricky Brookins will split time at receiver and halfback.

Despite the loss of Spriggs and another starter, the line remains a strength. Wilson, a former offensive line coach, says senior guard Dan Feeney is the best blocker he has coached. Brandon Knight has been compared to Spriggs.

Previewing Indiana’s Defense

Wilson has not shown he can build a winning defense. He changed coordinators, again, recruiting Tom Allen, a former Indianapolis high school coach who employed a 4-2-5 alignment at USF last season. The defense also welcomes Mark Hagen, a former IU linebacker who arrives from Texas A&M to coach the line.

Allen must create opportunities to employ his talented linebackers, because Marcus Oliver, T. J. Simmons, Clyde Newton and Tegray Scales were the unit’s strength last season. Nate Hoff and Ralph Green have the bulk to be run stoppers at tackle, but Indiana lacks experience on the edges and a pure pass rusher. Greg Gooch and Nile Sykes, two more former linebackers, should contribute.

The secondary struggled — again — allowing 313.8 passing yards per game. Safety Jonathan Crawford showed playmaking skills, grabbing four interceptions and making the Big Ten All-Freshman team. Chase Dutra is a quality safety if he can stay healthy. Two transfers — Jayme Thompson (Iowa Western via Ohio State) and Wesley Green (South Carolina) — should deliver an upgrade in the secondary.

Previewing Indiana’s Specialists

Everybody remembers Griffin Oakes’ controversial missed field goal in overtime of the Hoosiers’ Pinstripe Bowl loss to Duke, but don’t forget that he was the Big Ten Kicker of the Year and hit 6-of-8 from 40 yards or more. Joseph Gedeon has the inside track to replace Erich Toth at punter. Paige gave Indiana occasional thunder in its punt return game, taking two back for touchdowns, including one for 91 yards. Devonte Williams and Brookins will handle kickoff returns.

Final Analysis

The Hoosiers ended an eight-year bowl drought last season, but now comes a more substantial challenge — earning back-to-back bowl trips for the first time in 25 seasons. The pieces are there at running back, receiver and the offensive line. Can Wilson develop a 60 percent passer who doesn’t make bad reads? Defensively, the issue has not changed at Indiana in more than a decade: The Hoosiers lack the serious beef to win on the line of scrimmage against top Big Ten teams. Six wins remains their ceiling — without serious injuries or major issues.


#54 Cincinnati Bearcats



American Athletic PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Tommy Tuberville, 25-14 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Zac Taylor | DEF. COORDINATOR: Robert Prunty, Jeff Koonz

Cincinnati was projected to be among the American Athletic Conference's top teams last fall but slipped to 7-6 overall. While last year was a disappointment, the Bearcats could be poised for a turnaround in 2016. The offense remains explosive with quarterback Gunner Kiel at the helm, and Cincinnati had its share of bad luck with turnovers last season. If the Bearcats eliminate some of the mistakes, contending for the AAC East Division title is within reach.

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Previewing Cincinnati’s Offense

Cincinnati set 18 school records on offense last season but will have a new offensive coordinator and several new starters this year.

Former coordinator Eddie Gran left for the same job at Kentucky. Under Gran, UC had the three most productive seasons of total offense in school history, including 6,992 yards last season. UC last year ranked No. 6 nationally in total offense (537.8 ypg) and No. 38 in scoring offense (33.8 ppg).

New offensive coordinator Zac Taylor finished the 2015 season as Miami Dolphins interim offensive coordinator. UC will still play fast on offense, but expect more pro-style looks that include throwing to the backs and tight ends more than in recent years.

The big question is at quarterback. Gunner Kiel has been the starter for most of the past two years, but he missed the 2015 Hawaii Bowl for undisclosed personal reasons. Kiel rejoined the team in January, but coach Tommy Tuberville said Kiel had to earn his job back. Kiel threw for 2,777 yards and 19 touchdowns but was intercepted 11 times. Hayden Moore, who spelled Kiel at several junctures last season as a redshirt freshman, is in the running to start. Moore was inconsistent overall with nine TD passes and 11 interceptions.

UC must replace its top five receivers, including career receptions leader Shaq Washington. Top returning receiver Nate Cole caught 19 passes last year.

At running back, UC has solid producers in Mike Boone (749 yards rushing) and Tion Green (729). Veteran center Deyshawn Bond will lead what should be a strong line.

Previewing Cincinnati’s Defense

Tuberville had three different defensive coordinators in his first three UC seasons, and there will be change yet again at the top. Last year’s coordinator, Steve Clinkscale, left to become secondary coach at Kentucky. Robert Prunty is Clinkscale’s nominal replacement, but indications are that Tuberville himself will run the defense on game days, with input from his assistants.

UC jumped 20 spots to No. 78 nationally in total defense last year, with Tuberville turning to speedier youngsters instead of slower veterans.

UC returns its top two tacklers in outside linebacker Eric Wilson (106) and safety Zach Edwards (93). Middle linebacker Bryce Jenkinson also returns after tying for third on the team with 59 tackles. Defensive tackles Alex Pace and Cortez Broughton return to anchor the line.

Tuberville likes to talk about technique, but no amount of fundamentals can mask a lack of speed and experience. With several underclassmen having learned under fire, he believes the defense is ready to regain some swagger.

Previewing Cincinnati’s Specialists

Placekicker Andrew Gantz enters his third year as starter, having made 37-of-47 field goal attempts for his career. Punter Sam Geraci had a 46.3-yard average last year, the best at UC since Kevin Huber (now with the Bengals) averaged 46.9 in 2007. UC has not returned a punt or kickoff for a TD since 2011, and coverage teams have been spotty.

Final Analysis

The Bearcats slumped to 7–6 after two consecutive 9–4 seasons. It is a critical year for Tuberville, who turns 62 in September and enters the fourth season of a five-year contract.

How did UC set 18 school offensive marks and go only 7–6? UC ranked 125th nationally in turnover margin at minus-1.46 per game. The Bearcats also were No. 123 in penalty yardage at 72.9 yards per game. UC improved slightly on defense last year but lacked playmakers and forced only 14 turnovers.

Cincinnati flopped after being a heavy favorite to win the AAC in 2015. UC is no longer the national player it became under Brian Kelly, and the fans are getting restless.


#84 Tulsa Golden Hurricane



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Philip Montgomery, 6-7 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Philip Montgomery | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bill Young, Brian Norwood

The American Athletic Conference was one of the nation’s major success stories last season as team’s like Memphis, Houston, Temple and Navy all spent time in the top 25 at one time or another. Look a little deeper, and you’ll see Tulsa’s rebound year. The Golden Hurricane won more games in the first season under Philip Montgomery (six) than they did in the last two under Bill Blakenship (five). This is a program that used to regularly win 10 games. If the defense can rebound, Tulsa should be able to take the next step from 6-7.

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Previewing Tulsa’s Offense for 2016 

Tulsa averaged more than 500 yards per game in Philip Montgomery’s first season as head coach and has the potential for even more production in 2016. That’s not surprising given Montgomery’s history of coordinating high-powered offenses.

Back for a final season is veteran quarterback Dane Evans, who has steadily improved throughout his career and has especially thrived in Montgomery’s up-tempo system. Evans ranked eighth nationally in passing yards last year and is on track to leave as the program’s all-time top passer.

Wideout Josh Atkinson is coming off a breakout 1,000-yard campaign and will be primed for more even more production after the graduation of Keyarris Garrett, who led FBS in receiving yards last season. The Golden Hurricane also will get a significant boost from the highly anticipated return of slot receiver Keevan Lucas, who was the team’s go-to target before missing the last nine games with a knee injury.

Questions remain up front as the result of a pair of departures, but increased depth and size on the offensive line should cut down on sacks after the Hurricane allowed more than three per game last year. There’s also the possibility for more up-and-coming talent to develop amid the addition of five newcomers to the position group.

Last season’s emergence of a run game that produced 33 touchdowns was a pleasant surprise, and the running back spot will again feature a committee that includes D’Angelo Brewer, James Flanders and Ramadi Warren. The trio averaged 5.5 yards per carry in 2015.

Previewing Tulsa’s Defense for 2016

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Despite bringing in an experienced coaching staff and implementing various personnel changes, the Hurricane defense regressed — at least statistically — in 2015.

To turn a corner, Tulsa must address a porous secondary that was partly responsible for the team’s giving up a nation-high 89 plays of at least 20 yards and also must fill the void of the program’s second-leading tackler, safety Michael Mudoh. Other reliable playmakers will need to emerge around Jeremy Brady, the Defensive MVP of the Independence Bowl who showed promise as a first-time starter at safety last year, and Kerwin Thomas, who had a team-high 12 pass breakups and two interceptions at cornerback.

Relentless hitter Matt Linscott, a former walk-on who finished with 16 tackles for a loss and five sacks last season, returns alongside Trent Martin and Craig Suits to comprise a solid linebacking corps that should be the defense’s strength.

The defensive line will look to become more dependable while adding some new faces and building on a foundation that includes Jeremy Smith and Jesse Brubaker, who combined to total 73 tackles last season, including 11 for a loss.
Related: Athlon's 2016 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Tulsa’s Specialists for 2016 

More consistency across the board on special teams would make up for weaknesses elsewhere. Returning in the kicking game are Dalton Parks, who averaged 41.2 yards per punt in 2015; Redford Jones, who was 17-of-25 on field goals; and Preston Soper, who delivered 16 touchbacks on 86 kickoffs.

Final Analysis

Coming off a six-win season and its first bowl appearance since 2012, Tulsa appears on the right track under Montgomery. A complete turnaround remains a work in progress and will require additional patience from fans, but early success would help to carry over renewed excitement surrounding the program. Although the Hurricane might not be ready to contend for a conference championship, they should be competitive in the majority of their games. If the defense can make strides, the offense has the capability to outscore opponents and propel Tulsa toward an upper division finish in the AAC West. 


#86 Nevada Wolf Pack





HEAD COACH: Brian Polian , 18-20 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Cramsey | DEF. COORDINATOR: Scott Boone

Entering his fourth season, Brian Polian is starting to get his legs under him at Nevada. The Wolf Pack has gone 7-6 in back-to-back seasons and should have enough experience on offense (nine returning starters) to reach the postseason again. If the defense can overcome just one returning starter in the front seven, Nevada could make a run at the Mountain West title game.

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Previewing Nevada’s Offense for 2016

New offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey appears ready to usher in a new era at Nevada, which has run the Pistol offense exclusively for more than a decade. Cramsey, whose offenses at Montana State were among the tops in FCS, will still run plenty of Pistol. But as part of the Chip Kelly coaching tree, Cramsey will likely introduce more spread principles, giving the Wolf Pack a new look for head coach Brian Polian.

Cramsey will have plenty of talent. Junior James Butler — who ran for 1,342 yards and 10 touchdowns — will anchor the offense. Despite starting only one game in 2015, Butler emerged as the Wolf Pack’s top threat and appears poised to truly break out.

Senior quarterback Tyler Stewart’s 2015 campaign was steady, if unspectacular. He started all 13 games and threw for 2,139 yards and 15 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. But he completed just 57 percent of his passes, and his consistency waned later in the season. Stewart’s job was tested in the offseason with the addition of junior college transfer Ty Gangi and sophomore backup Hunter Fralick, but the senior had a strong spring.

Senior Hasaan Henderson — a 6'5", all-conference-caliber receiver when healthy — leads an experienced group. But senior Jerico Richardson is a more consistent performer, and sophomore Ahki Muhammad, who converted from cornerback to slot, provides a new dynamic. Senior tight end Jarred Gipson offers a dependable option.

For the offense to truly jell, the experienced offensive line will have to take another step forward, particularly in pass protection. Junior left tackle Austin Corbett anchors the line, but all five projected starters are upperclassmen, a first in the Polian era.

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Previewing Nevada’s Defense for 2016 

After making the jump from FCS and William & Mary, defensive coordinator Scott Boone has turned in an underrated effort at Nevada. He inherited a defensive unit that allowed 34.4 points per game in 2013, and each year that average has dropped, to 27.2 in 2014 to 26.8 last season. The job gets more difficult this year, however, as the Pack must replace six starters in the front seven. Ends Malik Reed (sophomore) and Patrick Choudja (junior) have flashed at times, but both must step up in starting roles. Salesa Faraimo returns at tackle, and coaches were pleased during the spring with redshirt freshman tackle Hausia Sekona.

The biggest concern is at linebacker, where all of three career starts are returning. Freshman Gabe Sewell redshirted last year, but he will likely start with seniors Alex Bertrando (one start) and L.J. Jackson (two) on either side.

Safeties Asauni Rufus and Dameon Baber are among the best in the conference and head up a young, talented secondary. Rufus led the team in tackles, and Baber had six interceptions. Elijah Mitchell is the lone senior in the back and leads a foursome of corners with junior Kendall Johnson, sophomore Elijah Moody and freshman EJ Muhammad. 

Related: Athlon's 2016 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Nevada’s Specialists for 2016  

Special teams are a strength. Senior kicker Brent Zuzo was nearly automatic last year, hitting on all 17 of his field goal tries inside 50 yards. Senior punter Alex Boy (42-yard average) has been nearly as steady. Mitchell averaged 26.4 yards per kickoff return and returned one for a touchdown. Sophomore punt returner Andrew Celis proved reliable.

Final Analysis

Nevada’s offense should improve over last year, which will help blunt the significant losses to its defensive front. Still, the Wolf Pack have too many holes to expect a serious run at a West Division title. Nevada has finished 7–6 in four of the last five seasons, and there is plenty of reason to believe that history will repeat itself.


#85 Louisiana Tech Bulldogs





HEAD COACH: Skip Holtz, 27-17 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Todd Fitch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Blake Baker

Only three years into its membership in Conference USA, Louisiana Tech has established itself as one of the most consistent programs in the league. Coach Skip Holtz has led the Bulldogs to back-to-back nine-win seasons, the best two-year win total for the program since 1984-85. To continue the momentum, Louisiana Tech must replace transfer quarterback Jeff Driskel and touchdown machine Kenneth Dixon.

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Previewing Louisiana Tech’s Offense for 2016

Unlike the past two seasons, an experienced quarterback will not be transferring in to take control of Skip Holtz’s offense. Ryan Higgins, who started as a freshman in 2013 before backing up Cody Sokol and then Jeff Driskel, reclaimed the starting role after a strong performance in the spring. 

Higgins is comfortable running some zone read, but his primary job will be getting the ball out to a talented receiving corps. Louisiana Tech lines up four wide receivers in its base set, and it has strong options both inside (Trent Taylor) and outside (Carlos Henderson). Standing just 5'8", Taylor was a first-team All-C-USA performer last year after finishing second in the league with 99 catches. Henderson is a burner, and he will be joined by Utah transfer Alfred Smith, who appears to have just as much speed as Henderson. 

The offensive line is in great shape, with three returning starters, and a fourth — Kirby Wixson — who started in 2014 but missed 2015 due to injury. Guard O’Shea Dugas was a Freshman All-American, and left tackle Darrell Brown was second-team All-C-USA. 

At running back, Kenneth Dixon (second all time in NCAA career touchdowns) is gone, and it will be three players combining to fill his shoes in an offense that primarily lines up with one running back. Former walk-on Boston Scott led the team in rushing in the New Orleans Bowl and likely will start given his superior ability to break tackles. Jarred Craft is more of a short-yardage banger, and Jaqwis Dancy is a breakaway guy who could be a threat in the passing game.

Related: Athlon's 2016 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Louisiana Tech’s Defense for 2016

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With eight starters gone from a unit that ranked 62nd in scoring defense, the Bulldogs certainly face some challenges. The secondary returns just one starter, though it is a good one in safety Xavier Woods, an All-C-USA selection. The starting cornerbacks will be Arizona State transfer Ronald Lewis and Ephraim Kitchen. Another transfer, Jerrell Jackson from Hawaii, will be heavily in the mix, and junior college transfer DaMarion King should fill the nickel role as the Bulldogs attempt to improve their national ranking of 100th in passing defense. 

All three linebackers will be new, and there is concern as to who will step up. Russell Farris should be an every-down linebacker along with Brandon Durman, while a pair of redshirt freshmen in Donald Freeman and Collin Scott will try to become effective against the run. This unit received a boost after spring ball with the addition of graduate transfer Dalton Santos from Texas. 

The defensive line will feature a pair of strong defensive ends in Jaylon Ferguson and Aaron Brown, but losing NFL-bound Vernon Butler at defensive tackle leaves a gaping hole in the middle.

Previewing Louisiana Tech’s Specialists for 2016

Both kickers and long-snapper Darrell Travis are back. Placekicker Jonathan Barnes nailed 22-of-26 field goals, including 6-of-8 from beyond 40 yards. Punter Gerald Shouse had eight punts of more than 50 yards last season. The punt returner will again be Taylor, and Henderson was an honorable mention All-C-USA kick returner.

Final Analysis

With at least eight wins in four of the last five seasons, Louisiana Tech has established itself as one of the stronger Group of 5 programs in the nation. A very challenging September awaits, with non-conference road games against Arkansas and Texas Tech and a visit to C-USA East favorite Middle Tennessee. A green defense and new quarterback may not be ready for that gauntlet, but there are pieces in place for the Bulldogs to put things together in the second half of the season. Expect Louisiana Tech to stay in the top 30 in the nation in points scored. How many they are able to keep off the board will determine if a fourth bowl game in six years becomes a reality.


#88 Central Michigan Chippewas





HEAD COACH: John Bonamego, 7-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Morris Watts | DEF. COORDINATOR: Greg Colby

Central Michigan was quietly one of the great stories of last season. Coach John Bonamego, hired in a pinch after former coach Dan Enos left abruptly to be offensive coordinator at Arkansas, was diagnosed with a cancerous spot on his tonsil during the summer. By November, he announced he was cancer-free. Along the way, Central Michigan went 6-2 in the MAC for the program’s third bowl trip in four years. With 14 returning starters, Central Michigan is aiming for more in 2016.

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Previewing Central Michigan’s Offense for 2016  

Central Michigan has arguably the top quarterback in the Mid-American Conference in fourth-year starter Cooper Rush, who enjoyed a breakout 2015 campaign by throwing for 3,848 yards and 25 touchdowns. Once again, the Chippewas will go as far as the savvy and talented Rush will take them. He threw for at least 300 yards in eight of 13 games, including a 430-yard showing at Syracuse.

Rush will also enjoy a full complement of returning wide receivers, including Jesse Kroll (61 catches, 866 yards), who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Also back are veterans Anthony Rice (595 yards), Mark Chapman (559) and Corey Willis (564). Even if CMU struggles to find production at the tight end position, the depth at wide receiver should keep the passing game rolling.

The struggles for the Chippewas last year came in the run game, where they averaged a MAC-worst 101.3 yards per game. Starter Devon Spalding was lost for the season in Week 5 after impressive performances at Syracuse and Michigan State. It was not until the emergence of Romello Ross at the end of the season that CMU found some stability. Ross scored four TDs in a regular-season finale win over Eastern Michigan and rushed for 100 yards against Minnesota in the Quick Lane Bowl. Spalding, Ross and short-yardage back Jahray Hayes should be enough for Central Michigan to show significant improvement on the ground.

A couple question marks on the offensive line must be resolved before CMU can be called one of the MAC’s elite offenses.

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Previewing Central Michigan’s Defense for 2016 

There is a lot to like about the Central Michigan defense, which was second in the MAC in yards allowed per game (332.2) and third in points allowed (22.0). Although the Chippewas graduated three key starters, back in the fold are the majority of the playmakers to keep them afloat as one of the conference’s better units.

Safety Tony Annese is a proven ball hawk who put himself on the map in 2013 when he returned interceptions for touchdowns his first two career starts as a redshirt freshman. He’ll be tasked with breaking in a new starter at safety alongside him, but back at cornerback are both starters in juniors Amari Coleman and Josh Cox. Coleman in particular is gaining a reputation as a shutdown cornerback, even getting the best of former Michigan State star wideout Aaron Burbridge in a matchup last year.

The defensive line will be boosted by the return of junior end Joe Ostman, who suffered an ankle injury early in 2015 and was eventually shut down. Central Michigan’s linebacking corps will be led by outside backer Malik Fountain (67 tackles, 4.5 TFLs), who could be poised for a breakout sophomore season.

Related: Athlon's 2016 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Central Michigan’s Specialists for 2016  

Last year’s punter Ron Coluzzi opted to transfer to Iowa, leaving a void to fill. CMU should have no problem with turning over the reins to Cooper Mojsiejenko, whose father punted for seven years in the NFL. Kicking duties will once again go to Brian Eavey (16-of-24 on field goal attempts). The returns are likely to once again go to Emmett Thomas after he gained the coaching staff’s trust as a true freshman..

Final Analysis

The Chippewas surprised last year in coach John Bonamego’s first year at the helm. After being picked fifth in the MAC West preseason poll, CMU ended up sharing the division title. Expectations are riding high with so many starters returning on both sides of the ball. But standing in the way are other MAC West programs that have also been built to win in the immediate future. Central Michigan will not catch anyone sleeping in 2016.