#128 Charlotte 49ers





HEAD COACH: Brad Lambert, 10-12 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Mullen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Matt Wallerstedt

Charlotte is the newest member of the FBS ranks, and the 49ers join Conference USA after winning 10 games over the last two seasons under coach Brad Lambert. Charlotte has a ways to go before competing for a bowl game or a conference title, but the 49ers should score plenty of points in 2015 behind running back Kalif Phillips and receiver Austin Duke.

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Previewing Charlotte’s Offense for 2015 

The master plan for Charlotte’s young football program was to have its first generation of players come of age at the same time. As the 49ers enter their third season of existence and first in Conference USA, that plan should start paying off as most key offensive players return to a quick-strike offense that had 22 touchdown drives of 90 seconds or less last season.

Junior running back Kalif Phillips is coming off a 1,436-yard season and should again have a prominent role. He’ll have the luxury of an offensive line that brings back plenty of experience. Charlotte’s top two receivers, Austin Duke and Trent Bostick, also return, headlining a talented group that also includes Georgia transfer and former four-star recruit Uriah LeMay.

While much of the offense is settled, things should be interesting at quarterback. Matt Johnson started eight games last season before tearing his MCL. After he went out, Lee McNeill stepped in and helped lead the 49ers to two victories. Both players will be juniors this season and should be pushed by redshirt freshman Brooks Barden.

“I just feel like we’ve got a lot of pieces,” says Charlotte coach Brad Lambert, who served on Jim Grobe’s staff at Wake Forest for 10 years.

Previewing Charlotte’s Defense for 2015

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After giving up 31.6 points per game last season, Lambert turned to former Texas Tech defensive coordinator — and his old college roommate — Matt Wallerstedt to fix a shaky defense. Wallerstedt, who says he’ll keep the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme, inherits a defense that has some talent but little depth.

Lambert says he’s happy with the options along the defensive front. After missing last season, Devon Johnson will join last season’s sack leader Larry Ogunjobi on the line. Syracuse transfer Josh Manley should also be a factor.

Elsewhere on defense, there are questions. Nick Cook and Caleb Clayton-Molby will anchor the linebacking corps after both missed chunks of last season due to injury. Branden Dozier, last season’s leading tackler, and Devin Pearson will be proven options in the defensive backfield. But Lambert says that developing talent to put around these standouts will be the top priority heading into the preseason.

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

Previewing Charlotte’s Specialists for 2015 

Kicker Blake Brewer and punter Arthur Hart are back and should keep their spots. Chris Montgomery, Corey Nesmith, Damarrell Alexander and Ardy Holmes all had roles in the return game last season and should be in the mix again.

Final Analysis

Charlotte football has gone from an idea to a fully operational FBS program at warp speed. After two seasons as an FCS competitor, the enormity of the challenge it faces this season could show. This will be the 49ers’ first season with the full complement of 85 scholarship players. So while they’ll have talent, much of it will be young and untested against the level of competition it’s getting ready to face.

Also, up until now, Charlotte has eased into things with regard to scheduling. Previous slates were made up of FCS and Division II schools. This season, 11 of the team’s 12 games will be against FBS competition. In addition to Conference USA foes, the 49ers will face Temple and Kentucky.

Coming off of back-to-back 5–6 seasons, Charlotte has shown that, while it has room to improve, it’s not that far behind the learning curve. With the competition ratcheted up significantly this season, the 49ers hope to continue to show gradual improvement. Being competitive with Conference USA’s middle tier would be a sign that, despite the accelerated pace of progress, the program is right on schedule.


#120 Army West Point Black Knights



Independents PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Jeff Monken, 4-8 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brent Davis | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jay Bateman

Army is going for a new look and more formal name in 2015, updating its logos and preferring to spell out its name as “Army West Point.” Renewed results, though, remain in question. The Black Knights have reached one bowl game since 1996, and with six starters returning, a postseason seems a reach once again for the Cadets.

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Previewing Army West Point’s Offense for 2015 

With Angel Santiago having graduated and A.J. Schurr sidelined with a shoulder injury, Army went through spring drills without a quarterback who saw game action in 2014. Schurr, a senior who started two games last season, is the Cadets’ leading returning rusher. He will be challenged by Ahmad Bradshaw in fall camp. Bradshaw has explosive speed, and coach Jeff Monken noted how he improved his decision-making as the spring progressed. Junior Matt Kaufmann also got a lot of reps in the spring.

With the country’s fifth-best rushing attack having graduated nearly 3,000 of its yards, there will be ample opportunity for several players to step up. Junior Joe Walker joins Elijah St. Hilaire and converted defensive back Joey Giovannelli among those vying for playing time. Monken is looking to build depth at fullback behind the solid duo of senior Matt Giachinta and junior Aaron Kemper. 

An offensive line anchored by senior center Matt Hugenberg returns Justin Gilbert, who missed last season with a torn ACL after starting 2013 at right tackle. Sophomore Jaryn Villegas started at both guard spots the second half of last season.

Among receivers, junior Edgar Poe started nine games last season, and sophomore Jeff Ejekam had a good spring. Senior Kelvin White returns at tight end.

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Previewing Army West Point’s Defense for 2015 

Five of the front seven graduated, including all four linemen. The holdovers are junior linebackers Andrew King and Jeremy Timpf. The former recorded a team-high 5.0 sacks last season, and the latter led in tackles (117) and tackles for a loss (14.5) while also picking off three passes. Monken was very pleased with the spring performance of sophomore end John Voit, who appeared in 11 games as a reserve last season. The second-year coach believes senior T.J. Atimalala was making strides toward being the starting nose tackle. 

A new face in the secondary is former receiver Xavier Moss. The junior was moved to safety prior to spring drills. Senior Chris Carnegie — whose 99-yard interception return sealed last year’s win over UConn — and junior Josh Jenkins are returning starters at corner. Steven Johnson, who started six games at safety last season, filled in for the injured Carnegie during the spring. Monken feels Johnson is a better fit at corner, which is where he could find himself in nickel packages at the very least.

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

Previewing Army West Point’s Specialists for 2015 

Jenkins handled the bulk of the return duties last season. But after placing 117th nationally in punt returns and 123rd on kick returns, both units could stand considerable improvement. Poe, Ejekam and perhaps a freshman or two will be given an opportunity to breathe life into the return game. Kicker Daniel Grochowski and punter Alex Tardieu are back for their senior seasons. Grochowski’s 52-yard field goal against Navy last season was the program’s longest in 20 years.

Final Analysis 

With so many starters on both sides of the ball having departed, Monken has a lot of holes to plug, and a few jobs will not be determined until well into fall camp and perhaps beyond. Monken has assembled a solid staff and has been an aggressive recruiter. He may have to rely on players coming in from the Army prep program and/or members of this year’s recruiting class arriving in the summer to fill vacancies. He is also recruiting faster and more athletic players, something that has been noticeably lacking at West Point. This may be a season of growing pains, but many indicators are at least headed in an upward direction as Monken continues to put his stamp on a success-starved program that has lost 13 straight to Navy.


#122 UNLV Rebels





HEAD COACH: Tony Sanchez, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Barney Cotton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kent Baer

UNLV made arguably one of the biggest coaching gambles of the offseason when it hired the wildly successful Tony Sanchez from Bishop Gorman. The high school ranks have been a good place to grab assistants (Chad Morris, Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze) but not necessarily head coaches (Todd Dodge). Former coach Bobby Hauck brought one bowl season and four 10-loss seasons in four years, so clearly UNLV is rolling the dice that the Sanchez move will inject some life into one of college football’s worst programs.

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Previewing UNLV’s Offense for 2015 

First-year coach Tony Sanchez won a mythical national high school championship at nearby Bishop Gorman in 2014 with a run-first philosophy. He and veteran offensive coordinator Barney Cotton, who spent the past eight years as associate head coach and run game coordinator at Nebraska, share similar philosophies and will try to add some muscle to a Rebel offense that ranked 104th nationally in scoring (21.9 ppg).

Senior Blake Decker, who finished fourth in the Mountain West in total offense but threw more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (15), returns at quarterback but was pushed strongly by junior college transfer Kurt Palandech in spring practice.

The strength of the offense will be wide receiver, where Devonte Boyd, who grabbed a team-best 65 passes for 980 yards and four touchdowns, returns after earning Freshman All-America honors. Kendal Keys also impressed while catching 24 passes as a freshman, and Sanchez also expects big things from highly touted incoming freshmen Brandon Presley and Darren Woods Jr.

The offensive line must be rebuilt after losing a pair of four-year starters in tackle Brett Boyko and center Robert Waterman. Will Kreitler, a second team NJCAA All-American, was impressive in spring drills and is expected to be the anchor along with Kyle Saxelid, who made five starts as a true freshman at left tackle.

Junior Keith Whitely, who ran for 504 yards and scored two touchdowns, is the team’s top returning rusher, but he is expected to be pushed by talented incoming freshmen Xzaviar Campbell and Lexington Thomas in the fall.

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Previewing UNLV’s Defense for 2015  

Kent Baer, who has been a defensive coordinator at 10 FBS schools, including Notre Dame, Arizona State and Stanford, comes over from Colorado. He will have his hands full trying to turn around a defense that allowed 38.5 points and 293.8 yards rushing per game a year ago.

The Rebels do have a couple of talented pieces to build around in junior linebacker Tau Lotulelei and senior free safety Peni Vea, who combined for 188 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Lotulelei is one of three returning starters on an athletic unit that has good depth and is expected to be the strength of the defense. Vea, who tied for second in the Mountain West in tackles by defensive backs, is the lone returning starter in a secondary that yielded 25 touchdowns while coming up with just seven interceptions. That unit should get a boost from touted junior college corner Jay’Onn Myles, who turned down Arizona and Baylor to sign with the Rebels.

The key will be the development of a young defensive line that returns just one starter in senior end Sonny Sanitoa. Sanchez was impressed by tackles Tuli Fakauho and Mike Hughes during the spring and believes junior college transfer Mark Finau and true freshman Salanoa-Alo Wily will be key additions in the fall.
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing UNLV’s Specialists for 2015  

Senior Logan Yunker returns after placing 30 kicks inside the 20 and adding 14 punts of 50 yards or more last season. Nicolai Bornand  and Jonathan Leiva both return after sharing placekicking duties. Whitley will be among those battling for return duties in the fall.

Final Analysis

The energetic Sanchez, who won six straight state titles at Bishop Gorman and has strong backing from the Las Vegas community, now tries to make the big jump to Division-I football. He takes over a sputtering UNLV program that has lost 10 or more games in six of the last nine seasons and faces a daunting schedule that includes non-conference games against UCLA, Michigan and Northern Illinois. Avoiding double digits in losses again this season would be a major accomplishment.


#127 Eastern Michigan Eagles





HEAD COACH: Chris Creighton, 2-10 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kalen DeBoer | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brad McCaslin

If history is any indication, Year Two is a good time for a Chris Creighton team. His team at Wabash improved from 8-2 to 12-1, and his team at Drake improved from 6-5 to 8-3. Eastern Michigan, though, is one of college football’s worst programs. Reaching four wins — and thus doubling the win total — would mark an achievement EMU has reached just once since 2007.

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Previewing Eastern Michigan’s Offense for 2015 

Reginald Bell breathed some life into EMU’s offense when he settled into the starting role at quarterback midway through the 2014 season. The dual-threat signal caller put up more than 300 total yards of offense in a 37–27 win over Buffalo — highlighted by a pair of 70-yard touchdown runs — and threw for 409 yards in a 45–30 loss to Ball State late in the season. Bell, a former state champion in track out of California, has the chance to be a dynamic playmaker as a sophomore if the offense can develop around him. 

Eastern Michigan needs more production out of its undersized receiving corps. The Eagles’ 2015 recruiting class includes five talented wide receivers, but they might not be ready to jump straight into the lineup. Senior Dustin Creel has the potential to turn into a go-to target. He had 46 catches and 593 yards as a sophomore in 2013 but was slowed by a knee injury last fall. 

The other challenge for the Eagles offense will be replacing three starters — Campbell Allison, Lincoln Hansen and Robert McFadden — on the offensive line. They are building around returning starter Andrew Wylie, who will step in for Hansen at right tackle. 

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Previewing Eastern Michigan’s Defense for 2015 

There is no way to sugarcoat just how poorly the  Eastern Michigan defense performed last season. The Eagles allowed 40.9 points and 498.8 yards per game and forced only 12 turnovers. All three figures ranked among the 10 worst in the nation. 

The players, who were learning their third defensive system in three years, looked lost at times. A second year with the same defense — plus the return of seven starters — should provide EMU with the building blocks for turning the unit around. 

The Eagles have strong depth at linebacker, where leading tackler Great Ibe is part of a group of returning starters that also includes Hunter Matt and Anthony Zappone. Ike Spearman, who missed all last season with a leg injury, was given a medical redshirt and will be back in the mix as well. 

Eastern Michigan’s most talented player on either side of the ball is defensive lineman Pat O’Connor, who had 64 tackles, 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles last season. He can line up on the inside or outside and is someone for whom offenses need to account. But he needs some help. 

The secondary has a lot of moving pieces and is still an area of concern. Safety Jason Beck and cornerback DaQuan Pace are the returning starters in the group. Beck started as a true freshman last season and continues to make strides. Junior college transfer Ikie Calderon brought a lot of energy in the spring at safety.  

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

Previewing Eastern Michigan’s Specialists for 2015 

Tyler Allen rewrote EMU’s record books as the team’s primary kickoff returner the past two seasons. Replacing him will not be easy. Placekicker Dylan Mulder returns after a solid season in which he hit 8-of-12 attempts, including three from beyond 40 yards. The Eagles were poor covering both kickoffs and punts last season, areas that need to improve going forward. 

Final Analysis 

Eastern Michigan lacks the top-level talent and depth to make a big move in the MAC West this season, but second-year coach Chris Creighton is moving the team in the right direction. The Eagles have finished 2–10 in each of the past three seasons, but a more favorable schedule — with three home games in September and six overall — could help them exceed that win total. For a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 1995, three or four wins would certainly be something to build on.


#119 Kent State Golden Flashes





HEAD COACH: Paul Haynes, 6-17 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Don Treadwell | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian George

Kent State’s 11-3 season and MAC East title in 2012 is a distant memory. The Golden Flashes are 6-17 in two seasons under Paul Haynes and regressed from three MAC wins in 2013 to one in 2014 (over Akron by a field goal in the last game of the season). Improvement will be expected for the Flashes in the third season under Haynes, but they will need the offensive line to grow up fast and a veteran defense to improve to make a major move.

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Previewing Kent State’s Offense for 2015 

The Kent State offense needs bruising 250-pound tailback Trayion Durham to return to his sophomore year form. In 2012, Durham teamed with Dri Archer (now with the Pittsburgh Steelers) to lead the Golden Flashes to the MAC East title and the school’s first bowl berth since 1972. But Durham was slowed by injuries in 2013 and held to 766 yards rushing. In 2014, a foot injury kept him out of all 11 games as KSU went 2–9. A healthy Durham and Nick Holley (team-high 516 yards rushing in 2014) could form a productive duo in the Golden Flashes backfield.

A potent running attack would take the pressure off junior quarterback Colin Reardon, who has had two inconsistent seasons as the starter. In 2014, Reardon threw more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (14) and was the leader of an offense that ranked 12th in the MAC and 116th nationally in total yardage.

Reardon lost his two favorite targets in tight end Casey Pierce and receiver Chris Humphrey, but there is strength in numbers because coach Paul Haynes and his staff have recruited well at those positions. Look for strong seasons from Kris White, James Brooks, Ernest Calhoun and prized recruit Johnny Woods.

The line is bound to be improved since it was one of the youngest in the MAC last season. Seven of the 10 linemen on the two-deep from 2014 are back, and that doesn’t include senior right guard Anthony Pruitt, a former regular in the rotation who missed 2014 with an injury.

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Previewing Kent State’s Defense for 2015 

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that the top 11 tacklers from 2014 are back, along with two starters who missed 2014. The bad news is the players on that defense were part of a group that allowed 430.3 yards per game. Still, coordinator Brian George expects major improvement throughout his defense because those players are one year older and have one year more experience.

The defense is led by what could be the best pair of safeties in the MAC. Junior free safety Nate Holley earned first-team all-conference honors in 2014 after recording 137 tackles, the most at KSU since 1996. Senior strong safety Jordan Italiano ranked second in tackles (96) and added three interceptions.

The front four will be led by tackles Nate Terhune and Chris Fairchild, who missed the 2014 season. Highly touted junior college transfer Anthony Johnson, a defensive end, will be expected to make a big contribution.

At linebacker, Matt Dellinger (third in tackles with 89) returns in the middle, and Elcee Refuge (fourth with 58) is back on the outside. Outside backer DeVante’ Strickland, who had 53 tackles as a starter in 2013, missed 2014 with an injury.

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

Previewing Kent State’s Specialists for 2015 

First-team All-MAC punter Anthony Melchiori had a 44.3-yard average, which was first in the conference and 12th nationally. He was not as productive as a placekicker, making 10-of-18 field goals, so he may be pushed by Brad Miller.

Final Analysis

The Golden Flashes have nowhere to go but up after beating only Army and Akron in their abbreviated 11-game 2014 schedule (they had a game snowed out). Haynes had big shoes to fill after replacing Darrell Hazell in 2013, and his two-year record of 6–17 places him on the hot seat.

Improvement does seem to be a given because so many starters return, along with a large group of reserves who saw extensive playing time. The keys on offense are improvement by Reardon at quarterback and a productive Durham-Holley running combination. The defense has plenty of experience but must get tougher, especially against the run. 


#113 Old Dominion Monarchs





HEAD COACH: Bobby Wilder, 52-20 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Scott | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rich Nagy

Bobby Wilder proved in short order that Old Dominion can compete in the FBS ranks after a six-win 2014 campaign. Replacing a superstar like Taylor Heinicke will be nearly impossible but seven other offensive starters are back. In C-USA's tougher division (East), the Monarchs were nice story a year ago, and Wilder has some equity built up heading into what appears to be a tougher sophomore campaign.

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Previewing Old Dominion’s Offense for 2015  

For four seasons, quarterback Taylor Heinicke was the face of Old Dominion football. Heinicke won the Walter Payton Award — the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy — and threw for nearly 15,000 yards, giving the Monarchs the luxury of predictably solid quarterback play as they navigated the transition to the FBS level. With Heinicke gone, Old Dominion’s offense faces the kind of questions it hasn’t dealt with in a several years.

Redshirt freshman Shuler Bentley will be the player most likely to fill Heinicke’s shoes. The 6'1" Shuler threw a South Carolina state-record 71 touchdown passes as a senior in high school and spent last season as the backup Heinicke never needed. Junior college transfer Joey Verhaegh will also have a shot at the starting gig. Whoever ends up with the job will have tools with which to work.

Sophomore running back Ray Lawry will again have a big role after rushing for 947 yards and being named Conference USA’s top freshman. He leads a stable of solid backs that also includes promising sophomore Vincent Lowe and speedy freshman Jeremy Cox. After the loss of standout receiver Antonio Vaughan to graduation, Zach Pascal, David Washington and Melvin Vaughn become the prime targets in the passing game.

The Monarchs lost an all-conference center in Josh Mann but return 10 linemen who have significant playing experience, leading coach Bobby Wilder to be optimistic about the offense in the post-Heinicke era.

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Previewing Old Dominion’s Defense for 2015 

The Monarchs’ defense took its lumps last season, giving up 38 points per game, including 56 to Marshall and 66 to Western Kentucky. But that wasn’t a surprise as Old Dominion’s defense relied heavily on young players. However, the result is that, with much of the unit back, Wilder expects to see improvement.

“This is going to be a young, developing, growing football team that’s only going to get better,” Wilder says.

Senior Poncho Barnwell, who led the team in sacks last season, will be the most experienced member of the defensive line.

TJ Ricks and Martez Simpson, two of the team’s top tacklers last season, will team up with junior college transfers Richard Thomas and Shadow Williams to give the Monarchs a solid group of linebackers. Senior safety Fellonte Misher and junior cornerback Devon Brown, a UAB transfer, will be worth watching in the secondary.

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

Previewing Old Dominion’s Specialists for 2015  

Junior Ricky Segers was an effective kicker before tearing his ACL seven games into last season. In his place, Satchel Ziffer, now a junior, handled the job, kicking two game-winning field goals. Wilder expects them to compete for the job in the preseason. Ziffer will also be in a battle with Joe Pulisic and Jarrett Cervi for punting duties. Pascal, Nick England and Isaiah Harper will all be in the mix to become the Monarchs’ primary return man.

Final Analysis

Old Dominion’s first season as a full-fledged FBS school was a pleasant surprise. The Monarchs weren’t eligible to go to a bowl given their status as a first-year member of Conference USA, but their 6–6 overall record — including a 4–4 league mark in C-USA’s tougher East division — would have been good enough to get them there.

“It was a really good first step for our program,” Wilder says.

This season, with the loss of Heinicke, repeating that success could prove tricky. To his credit, Wilder is realistic. He pegs a reasonable goal for this team at contending for the division and earning a bowl trip. For a school that only restarted its football program seven seasons ago, pulling off such feats would be cause to celebrate.


#112 FIU Panthers





HEAD COACH: Ron Turner, 5-19 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Shankweiler | DEF. COORDINATOR: Matt House

The Panthers only won four times last year, and Ron Turner's squad is picked fifth in the East Division of Conference USA. But FIU has a young quarterback and 14 starters back for a team that was better in the final few weeks of the season. Can Turner continue the improvement and get FIU to a bowl game?

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Previewing FIU’s Offense for 2015  

Early enrollee freshman Alex McGough won the starting quarterback job quickly in spring camp 2014 and never looked back. And while the offense struggled statistically, McGough never lost his handle on the job. He enters the 2015 season with high expectations stemming from a couple of strong games in conference (Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee).

Coach Ron Turner runs a single-back, run-first offense, and he has a strong competition for playing time shaping up at tailback this season. Alex Gardner had an impressive start to the 2014 season, but a late-season shoulder injury opened the door for Bowling Green transfer Anthon Samuel, who averaged 6.0 yards per carry in the final four games. They will be options one and two in 2015, with the order likely to flip frequently.

The Panthers return their best offensive player in tight end Jonnu Smith, who has caught 100 passes and 10 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Smith was McGough’s safety valve in 2014 — he was targeted on 27 percent of the Panthers’ passing plays and caught 72 percent of those balls. With significant attrition at wide receiver, Smith might see those numbers rise again in 2015.

Sophomore Dennis Turner, once a Miami commitment, is the top returning wide receiver after being targeted 21 times in 2014. A year of progression for McGough should mean more utilization of Turner’s speed in 2015. But finding viable options beyond Tuner and Smith is priority No. 1 for the Panthers.

McGough will operate behind a line that’s best in run situations, led by left guard Jordan Budwig and right tackle Aaron Nielsen. Finding a replacement for center Donald Senat, who started 26 games in his career, will be another key in fall camp.

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Previewing FIU’s Defense for 2015 

Pat Narduzzi is one of the finest defensive minds in football, and when he took the Pittsburgh head coaching job, he tabbed FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin to run his defense. It was a deserved promotion for Conklin, as FIU had a surprisingly stout defense under him in 2014. The Panthers allowed only 148 big gains (of 10-plus yards) in 2014 — third-fewest in C-USA — thanks in part to standout years from defensive ends Denzell Perine (6.5 sacks) and Michael Wakefield (8.0), and cornerback Richard Leonard.

FIU returns plenty of defensive production in 2015. Only Giovani Francois has departed from an impressive defensive line, and the Panthers return all their top linebackers. Replacing safeties Demarkus Perkins and Justin Halley will be tough, as they were the linchpins of last season’s defense. Safety play could dictate how strong FIU’s high-potential defense can be in 2015.

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

Previewing FIU’s Specialists for 2015  

Leonard is one of the nation’s most dangerous return men, though he was able to break through for only one touchdown last season. The Panthers used two punters regularly, and the platoon should return in 2015. Jose Laphitzondo is the long-distance field-flipper, while Chris Ayers is used in close-range situations. Austin Taylor is both the kickoff specialist and placekicker, and he performed decently in both roles. He made 29-of-30 PATs and 4-of-6 field goals from 40-plus yards, while netting six touchbacks. 

Final Analysis

A young offense should improve, thanks to an elite tight end in Smith and a backfield that has a year of experience under its belt. With a stout defense that should more than hold up its end of the bargain, the Panthers’ quest to reach a bowl game in 2015 will ultimately rest on McGough’s evolution. FIU will be tested early, but winnable early-season games against UCF and Indiana could be a springboard to a surprising year for the Panthers. 


#101 Fresno State Bulldogs



Mountain West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Tim DeRuyter , 26-14 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dave Schramm | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Toth

The post-Derek Carr era did not get off to a good start for Fresno State last season. The Bulldogs went 6-8 in 2014, as Tim DeRuyter's team struggled to both score points and keep the opposition out of the end zone. Fresno State is still unsettled at quarterback, but a relatively weak Mountain West West Division should help the Bulldogs' chances of getting back to the postseason.

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Previewing Fresno State’s Offense for 2015  

Finding Derek Carr’s successor at quarterback was supposed to be last year’s storyline. Twelve months later, the Bulldogs are still searching. It won’t be Brian Burrell. Fresno State’s primary starter in 2014 opted not to return, leaving the passing game in the hands of a sophomore (Zack Greenlee), a redshirt freshman (Kilton Anderson) and a true freshman who enrolled early (Chason Virgil). That trio shared snaps in the spring with all three getting a chance to direct the first-team offense. Greenlee, who in his lone career start got benched at halftime, looked the sharpest during scrimmages. The battle will resume in August.

Shaky quarterback play was just one reason the Bulldogs ranked ninth in the Mountain West Conference in passing efficiency and last in yards per attempt — and that was with top receiver Josh Harper. With Harper gone and Delvon Hardaway expected to miss the first part of the season after partially tearing his ACL, senior Aaron Peck needs to finally fulfill his potential. A talented group of redshirt freshmen led by KeeSean Johnson and Keyan Williams catching on quickly would also help.

The new quarterback will have the luxury of handing off to senior tailback Marteze Waller, who broke out in a big way a year ago with 1,368 yards and 11 touchdowns. But the 5'11", 210-pounder had better stay healthy, because the only experienced legs behind Waller’s belong to the oft-injured Malique Micenheimer. The coaches didn’t feel like taking chances in spring and held Waller out of all contact.

Tackles Alex Fifita and Justin Northern and center Bo Bonnheim enter their senior seasons as third-year starters. Fifita is the best of the group, a brawler with nimble feet who projects as an NFL guard.

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Previewing Fresno State’s Defense for 2015 

When a defense that got torched for 32.4 points and 456 yards per game graduates its two best players (Tyeler Davison and Derron Smith), it’s time to reevaluate things. So that’s what coordinator Nick Toth did. He took 10 of the 11 starting spots and threw them open to competition.

Senior inside linebacker Kyrie Wilson was the one guy spared an audition, but he’ll switch to the “Mike” position on the strong side. Look for the athletic 6'2", 238-pounder to make bushels of tackles. Two other presumed starters, outside linebacker Ejiro Ederaine and cornerback Charles Washington, are expected back this fall following offseason surgeries. The health of both is critical.

The coaches are high on Nate Madsen, Davison’s successor at nose guard, but other than 292-pound end Claudell Louis there isn’t much size up front. Secondary play has been spotty, especially at cornerback, but there’s more depth and experience than in recent seasons. The Bulldogs did more tackling this spring, Toth’s attempt to fix what has been a glaring weakness.

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

Previewing Fresno State’s Specialists for 2015  

With a walk-on freshman placekicker, Fresno State didn’t have a ton of confidence in its kicking game a year ago. So even though Kody Kroening has improved, junior college signee Jimmy Camacho is expected to win the job in fall camp. Senior Garrett Swanson returns at punter and should cede kickoff duties to Camacho. The return game also gets revamped behind redshirt freshmen Jamire Jordan and Williams.

Final Analysis
Unlike last season, no one’s talking about defending (or even winning) a Mountain West championship. Instead, the total focus has been on fundamentals and competition. Normally, that wouldn’t bode well for a team’s success, but the West Division isn’t exactly a juggernaut. If the Bulldogs can avoid an 0–2 start in conference play, they’ll remain in contention for the division crown until late November.


#110 San Jose State Spartans





HEAD COACH: Ron Caragher, 9-15 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Al Borges | DEF. COORDINATOR: Greg Robinson

The Spartans are looking to take a big step forward in Ron Caragher's third season. He has a lot of young talent to build upon but it may take time for this roster to come into its own. San Jose State has a tough schedule in the Mountain West and big holes to plug on defense and under center.

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Previewing San Jose’s Offense for 2015  

To say that the Spartans offense sputtered late last season is to give them a pass. San Jose State lost its last six games of 2014, scoring only 14 points in their last three games. Quarterback play was a major contributor to the problem. Senior Blake Jurich won the job but then lost it to Joe Gray, who then lost it to Mitch Ravizza, who then lost it to Gray.

Gray has claim to the job in 2015, but with two junior college transfers (Kenny Potter and Malik Watson) behind him, his leash will likely be short. Last year, he threw for 2,305 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Gray will have a young but experienced offensive line in front of him and a bevy of playmakers around him to help find cohesion under new offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Tyler Ervin is the Spartans’ most interesting weapon. On a team with a nice stable of running backs and a load of possession receivers, Ervin carries the most big-play potential. He averaged 5.6 yards on his 158 rushing attempts (888 yards) and also caught 29 passes.

The Spartans also signed one of the best recruiting classes — if not the single best — among mid-major schools, punching way above their weight, especially with players on the outside of the field. If the Spartans offense isn’t clicking heading into conference play, there could be a flood of young, talented players injected into the depth chart.

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

Previewing San Jose’s Defense for 2015 

Last season, the Spartans had one of the nation’s best pass defenses and worst run defenses. That makes losses on an already bad defensive line especially concerning. But it’s also possible that the turnover is good for the Spartans on the line — the guys up front weren’t getting it done last season, allowing 239 rushing yards per game while amassing only 46 tackles for a loss (123rd nationally).

The linebacking corps looks to be a strength, especially with the return of Christian Tago and Hawaii transfer Jared Leaf, who sat out last year. Freshman Frank Ginda has the potential to make an immediate impact.

But the linebackers pale in comparison to the real strength of the Spartans defense — the secondary — as if the run/pass disparity from last year didn’t make that already known. Supremely talented, the secondary is also young. It’s led by sophomore safety Maurice McKnight, who had five pass breakups, accounted for nearly 10 percent of the team’s tackles and had two sacks in his rookie campaign. With corners Jimmy Pruitt and Cleveland Wallace (combined 21 pass breakups last year) and senior free safety Simon Connette, there’s not much ground that won’t be covered. If anyone passes on the Spartans, that is.

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

Previewing San Jose’s Specialists for 2015  

Recruiting prowess should shore up the Spartans coverage units, which is a major point of concern last season. If they can make space, Ervin’s presence in the return game can bear more fruit. Last season the open-field playmaker was able to return only one punt for a touchdown. 

Final Analysis

This year is setting up to be a bridge between the old and new for San Jose State. The Spartans’ tremendous recruiting class will filter its way onto the field throughout the year; but while those players find their footing, there are questions at quarterback and on the defensive line that will likely hold the Spartans back. Add in a tough schedule, and bowl eligibility looks like it will be a major accomplishment in 2015. But with youth at strength positions, and the best infusion of youth the program has ever known ready to fill the gaps, the future looks bright in 2016 and beyond. 


#108 South Alabama Jaguars





HEAD COACH: Joey Jones, 37-28 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bryant Vincent | DEF. COORDINATOR: Travis Pearson

Joey Jones has done excellent work at South Alabama. The transition to the highest level of college football has been pretty smooth, considering the Jaguars have already reached a bowl game. However, a bizarre injection of game-ready players from defunct UAB could make summer camp interesting in Mobile.

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Previewing South Alabama’s Offense for 2015  

To help restock an offense that returns only three starters, South Alabama snatched up instantly eligible UAB players after that program disbanded. And as a bonus, UAB offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent, a former USA quarterbacks coach, followed some of his players to Mobile to call plays for the Jaguars.

Quarterback Cody Clements, slot receiver D.J. Vinson and guard Cameron Blankenship, all UAB transfers, should start immediately. Clements, who sat out spring practice due to an injury, passed for 2,227 yards and 14 TDs last season. Vinson, an all-purpose threat, rushed for 670 yards at running back at UAB, but his services are needed more as a receiver at USA.

Blankenship is already among USA’s top linemen, and more UAB transfers could contribute or even start.

“Not only are they good players, but they have been in the system we’re running because of (Vincent) coming here,” USA coach Joey Jones says. “The learning curve is good for them, and they could be a good plus for our offense.”

Running back should be strong, as the returning duo of Terrance Timmons (403 yards) and Xavier Johnson (438 yards) is supplemented by junior college All-American Tyreis Thomas.

Right tackle Chris May is a returning anchor on the offensive line, but there are otherwise experience and depth concerns up front. Similarly, the wide receiving corps must develop role players into standouts.

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

Previewing South Alabama’s Defense for 2015 

USA’s defense returns only two starters in safeties Roman Buchanan (74 tackles) and Antonio Carter (54 tackles). And six USA defensive players who earned some type of All-Sun Belt honors last season have graduated.

The secondary could be solid, but only if two cornerbacks and a nickel spot can be solidified. E.J. May should fill one of the cornerback roles well, but freshmen and junior college transfers will take turns trying to fill the rest. Texas Tech transfer Blake Dees and UAB transfer Kalen Jackson may be the best options at linebacker. Both have talent.

Defensive end Jimmie Gipson returns as a proven edge rusher after recording 6.5 tackles for a loss and a team-high seven QB hurries last season. But questions are stacked high up front, especially in the interior line, where Tre Alford and Caleb Butler, both backups as freshmen, enter the season as the best options amid an inexperienced group.

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

Previewing South Alabama’s Specialists for 2015  

Placekicker Aleem Sunanon and punter Brandon McKee are both back, providing a little relief for a roster with plenty of unknowns. Sunanon is the Sun Belt’s most accurate returning placekicker, making 15-of-18 field goals last season. Filling the kick returner and punt returner roles may be trial and error early on.

Final Analysis

The young USA program broke through last season with its first bowl appearance, but its evolution takes a curious turn with the instant influx of UAB transfers. Quick fixes will impact what would have otherwise been a rebuilding year. But Jones knows talent alone will not win games. “This will be a different year than we’ve had. We’ve lost 55 players (to graduation) over the last two years,” Jones says. “Some of our veteran guys are not here anymore. We probably have more talent now. But with so many new guys, we have to mold this thing together pretty quickly.”

Three straight September non-conference games — against Nebraska, San Diego State and NC State — could challenge a team lacking chemistry. Eight straight Sun Belt games follow to finish the year. If the Jaguars have any chance at snagging another bowl bid, they’ll have to make some noise in the league race again.