#52 Duke Blue Devils





HEAD COACH: David Cutcliffe , 40-48 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Scottie Montgomery | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jim Collins, Jim Knowles

Duke and David Cutcliffe have a good thing rolling in Durham and the 2015 season could prove this team is ready to reload rather than rebuild. A lucky schedule, upgraded facilities and 12 returning starters give the Blue Devils optimism entering fall camp. There are still holes to fill for this program, but Duke is now considered a threat every year in the ACC Coastal.

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Previewing Duke’s Offense for 2015


For the first time since David Cutcliffe took over at Duke in 2008, there’s not a clear-cut succession plan at quarterback. That said, junior Thomas Sirk emerged from spring practice as the leader in the race to replace Anthony Boone. Sirk has plenty of physical tools, but he still has rough edges to his throwing fundamentals. And while he has some reliable targets to throw to in wideout Max McCaffrey and tight end Braxton Deaver, the Blue Devils are still searching for a big-play receiver to replace Jamison Crowder. Duke’s hoping a candidate emerges from a collection of young but talented wideouts. Redshirt freshman Chris Taylor showed particular promise in the spring.

Look for Duke to lean more on the running game, where the Devils have power (Jela Duncan), speed (Shaun Wilson) and a mix of both (Shaq Powell).

There are big holes to fill on the offensive line as well, particularly at right guard, where four-year starter Laken Tomlinson moved on to the NFL. Cutcliffe believes the overall talent level of the program continues to rise and that there’s now depth across the board. Duke’s 2015 offense will put that belief to the test.

Previewing Duke’s Defense for 2015

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Any discussion of Duke’s defense must go from back to front, as the strength of the Devils’ defense — perhaps the strength of the team, period — is its secondary. All five starters return, including play-making safeties Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards.

Duke will look to ball-hawk because it still lacks the bodies up front to physically dominate an opposing offense and force a bunch of three-and-outs. Linebacker Kelby Brown, who’s been one of the ACC’s top defenders — when he’s avoided the injury bug — suffered another knee injury in the summer and is out for 2015. Brown’s younger brother Kyler is playing a new stand-up hybrid defensive end position called the “Devil,” in which he’ll pass rush or drop into coverage as needed.

As for the rest of the front, Carlos Wray is the only returning starter. But for a change, the Blue Devils have some talented wide bodies in the interior defensive line. It’s just that those players — such as Edgar Cerenord and Quaven Ferguson — are young and untested.

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

Previewing Duke’s Specialists for 2015

Duke’s blueprint involves using the special teams to take some of the pressure off an unproven offense, either by setting Sirk and Co. up with short fields or by doing their own scoring. That seems like a logical approach, given that the Blue Devils have proven All-ACC performers at key spots, including kicker (Ross Martin), punter (Will Monday) and kickoff returner (DeVon Edwards). For now, Duke has opted to go with the steady McCaffrey returning punts, but a talented true freshman could wind up with that job. 

Final Analysis 

Duke will play the 2015 season amid signs of its revival. The quaint track at Wallace Wade has finally been removed, seating has been brought closer to the field and a new tower of luxury boxes will be under construction during the season.

As for the on-field product, the Blue Devils can show progress by managing to maintain their current status quo — a winning season and another bowl trip. There are probably too many question marks on offense to contend for the Coastal Division crown. But a manageable non-conference schedule (Northwestern is the biggest challenge) and avoiding Florida State, Clemson and Louisville in conference provides Duke ample opportunity to get to at least six wins and another bowl berth. The key may be Cutcliffe’s ability to convince a team that’s won 25 games in the past three years that it still has something to prove. 

The Debate

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#51 Utah State Aggies



MW Mountain Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Matt Wells, 19-9 (2 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Josh Heupel, Luke Wells | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Clune

Matt Wells has done a terrific job following Gary Andersen at Utah State. He’s won 19 games in two years and gave Aggies fans their third consecutive bowl victory by beating UTEP last December. The Mountain West contender sustained multitudes of injuries last season and should be healthier this fall. If Wells can break in new coordinators this offseason, the Aggies could push for a league championship.

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Previewing Utah State’s Offense for 2015

Once again the Aggies return a wealth of experience on offense, especially at quarterback. While one signal-caller who had started 11 games over the past two seasons left the team during spring drills, two more are back who have won bowl games — Chuckie Keeton and Kent Myers. Add to the mix Oregon transfer Damion Hobbs, and that position looks loaded. “We are strong at quarterback,” Utah State head coach Matt Wells says. “We’ve got game-day experience. We’ve got guys that have won games. Our team believes in all those guys. It is a position of strength.”

Myers, who was the New Mexico Bowl Offensive MVP in 2014 as a true freshman, spent half of spring at wide receiver. When Darrell Garretson left the team, Myers moved back to quarterback and into the battle to back up Keeton, a Heisman Trophy candidate two years ago.

Four linemen are back, and several key recruits were added to strengthen the position. Protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the running game should be a strength.

As for who will be carrying the ball, it could turn into a committee. LaJuan Hunt led the team as a freshman a year ago.

Two of the top four wide receivers from 2014 are back in Devonte Robinson and Hunter Sharp, along with tight end Wyatt Houston. JoJo Natson was expected to be a key target for Keeton, but the senior was dismissed from the team in late June.

“You expect a lot out of guys that have started,” Wells says. “I expect them to play at a very high level pretty early in the season.”

Previewing Utah State’s Defense for 2015

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Despite resting a handful of players who have started during spring to heal from surgeries or lingering injuries, this side of the ball showed its depth in scrimmages. It would seem the defense, which finished last season among the national leaders in many statistical categories, could be even better in 2015.

Like the quarterbacks, the Aggies had a number of linebackers go down with injuries but just kept reloading. Now there is a group that will be fighting for playing time. Nick Vigil and Kyler Fackrell have earned all-league honors, while LT Filiaga and Torrey Green were able to step in and play significant time last year.

“I think we are talented at linebacker,” Wells says. “Linebacker should be the strength of our defense.”

The secondary lost two safeties to graduation but returns a group of athletes who saw lots of time in nickel and dime packages. Cornerbacks Jalen Davis and Daniel Gray, along with safety Devin Centers, give the team experience.

Jordan Nielsen is the most experienced player in the defensive trenches.

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

Previewing Utah State’s Specialists for 2015

The punter and kicker who handled most of the field goals are gone. Jake Thompson has kicked off and been used to attempt longer field goals. Long snapper Salanoa Galea’i is also back.

Final Analysis 

Not even a plethora of key injuries derailed the Aggies from going to their fourth straight bowl game and emerging victorious for the third consecutive year. One has to wonder how good they could have been had they stayed healthy. Most of those athletes are back, and a strong recruiting class has been added.

With the success Utah State has enjoyed, several key assistants left for bigger schools. The Aggies will have new coordinators on both sides of the ball in Josh Heupel (offense) and Kevin Clune (defense), who was a position coach at USU several years ago. Wells believes the new coordinators have added to the program and brought a new and different enthusiasm.

Extending the school record streak of bowl appearances is nearly a given.


#60 Indiana Hoosiers



Big Ten West Division PREDICTION


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

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

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Previewing Indiana’s Offense for 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Previewing Indiana’s Defense for 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Previewing Indiana’s Specialists for 2015

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

Final Analysis

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

The Debate

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#57 Maryland Terrapins





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

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

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Previewing Maryland’s Offense for 2015

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

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

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

Previewing Maryland’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big Ten College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

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

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

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

Previewing Maryland’s Specialists for 2015

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

Final Analysis

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

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

The Debate

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#54 Navy Midshipmen



Independents PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Ken Niumatalolo, 57-35 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Ivin Jasper | DEF. COORDINATOR: Buddy Green

The Midshipmen have been to six bowls in seven years under Ken Niumatalolo. With a superstar returning under center in the form of Keenan Reynolds, a seventh bowl game is all but certain. But can Navy contend for an American Athletic Conference championship in their first season in the new league?

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Previewing Navy’s Offense for 2015

Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is looking to cap a remarkable career with a strong senior season. The Tennessee native already owns a slew of school records and ranks first among quarterbacks in NCAA history with 64 rushing touchdowns.  A rare fourth-year starter in Navy’s triple-option offense, Reynolds boasts a 21–11 record.

Reynolds will have plenty of proven weapons at his disposal, with senior fullback Chris Swain, senior slot back DeBrandon Sanders and junior wide receiver Jamir Tillman leading the way. Swain, a powerfully built 245-pounder bruiser, is coming off a strong 2014 campaign in which he displayed vastly improved vision while rushing for 693 yards. Sanders, a 5'7", 160-pound jitterbug, has averaged 8.0 yards per rush and 19.3 yards per reception during his career. Tillman, a smooth and fluid 6'4", 206-pounder, emerged as a big-play threat in 2014.

Navy must rebuild its offensive line after graduating three starters. Left guard E.K. Binns, entering his third season as a starter, takes over as the leader of the unit.

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

Previewing Navy’s Defense for 2015

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

The Midshipmen suffered significant losses on the defensive side of the ball, most notably end Paul Quessenberry, linebackers Jordan Drake and Chris Johnson and safety Parrish Gaines. That quartet will not be easy to replace.

Senior nose guard Bernie Sarra is one of the strongest players on the team and has done an outstanding job of holding the point of attack since moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore. Right end Will Anthony was the breakout performer of 2014, leading the team with 11.0 tackles for a loss.

Navy’s 3-4 scheme requires the inside linebackers to make the majority of the tackles, and Daniel Gonzales stepped up as a sophomore, ranking second on the squad with 86. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Three of the four linebackers will be first-time starters, although the speedy and rangy William Tuider has seen significant action in a reserve role. 

Junior Brendon Clements has started 20 straight games at cornerback and displayed superb ball instincts along with sure tackling. The Miami native already has 107 career tackles and eight pass breakups. Quincy Adams started all 13 games at the opposite corner and earned honorable mention All-Independent honors after finishing as Navy’s third-leading tackler. Strong safety Kwazel Bertrand has started 16 games over the previous two seasons.

Previewing Navy’s Specialists for 2015

Navy must replace one of the finest punters in program history in Pablo Beltran, a four-year starter who ranks second in school history with a 41.8-yard average. Senior Gavin Jernigan, the backup the previous two seasons, will get first crack at the job. Austin Grebe took over as the starting placekicker in the seventh game of last season and was impressive, hitting 6-of-6 on field goals and 33-of-33 on extra points. 

Final Analysis  

This is a new era for Navy, which joins the American Athletic Conference following more than a century as an Independent. The Midshipmen own a 34–27–1 record against current AAC members and have regularly played schools such as SMU, East Carolina and Tulane.

Veteran coach Ken Niumatalolo says capturing the conference championship has now been added to the annual goals of beating service academy rivals Army and Air Force to secure the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and qualifying for a bowl game.

 “I think joining a conference is something we had to do and will be good for the program over the long haul,” Niumatalolo says. “However, there is a lot of apprehension and nervousness because there are so many unknowns.”


#55 Kentucky Wildcats





HEAD COACH: Mark Stoops, 7-17 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shannon Dawson | DEF. COORDINATOR: D.J. Eliot

There was tangible growth for Kentucky in Mark Stoops second season in Lexington. Despite a disappointing second half that still left the Wildcats at home during bowl season, Stoops was able to build a more competitive team. The Cats won two SEC games last fall and if it can improve by just one game, a postseason berth is very possible in 2015.

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Previewing Kentucky’s Offense for 2015: 

When coordinator Neal Brown left to become the head coach at Troy after last season, Mark Stoops wanted to maintain continuity, so he grabbed another branch from the “Air Raid” coaching tree that began blooming at UK in the late 1990s with Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. Stoops hired West Virginia OC Shannon Dawson, who spent four years under Dana Holgorsen.

In his first spring at Kentucky, Dawson earned praise for his work with quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker, and for the balance and creativity of his attack. It produced five touchdowns in the Cats’ final scrimmage of the spring.

Dawson has two prototypical prospects — and former four-star recruits — to choose from at QB. Towles (6'5", 241) and Barker (6'3", 221) battled to a near draw in spring, but as a junior who started every game and produced more than 3,000 total yards last fall, Towles has the edge in experience.

There’s more talent around the QBs than any point in recent memory. Sophomore tailback Stanley “Boom” Williams had 1,159 all-purpose yards last season, including three touchdown runs of 50-plus yards. His backup is Jojo Kemp, who had 131 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina last season.

Junior wideout Ryan Timmons (874 career yards) is joined by a quartet of sophomore receivers — big targets Blake Bone and Dorian Baker and breakaway threats Garrett Johnson and Jeff Badet — plus true freshman tight end C.J. Conrad, an early enrollee who looked like a legitimate threat this spring.

Four starters are back on an offensive line that is the deepest and most physically imposing of Stoops’ three-year tenure. 

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Previewing Kentucky’s Defense for 2015:  

Replacing star ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith won’t be easy, but Kentucky has upgraded its talent elsewhere. Senior nose tackle Melvin Lewis, a 6'4", 342-pound former junior college transfer, will anchor the line, and Stoops expects a breakout year from linebacker Ryan Flannigan, another transfer in his second season with the Wildcats.

Former four-star recruit Jason Hatcher, a junior who waited his turn behind Dupree, is ready for prime time at outside linebacker in what has morphed into a full-time 3-4 defense.

Senior free safety A.J. Stamps is back after a strong debut season at Kentucky in which he intercepted a team-high four passes. He’ll lead a group that includes versatile veterans Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson and Kendall Randolph.

Stoops remains concerned about his corners, but at least he has experienced options there. Seniors Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller have 47 starts and 29 pass breakups between them. But there’s room for a newcomer to break into the lineup.

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

Previewing Kentucky’s Specialists for 2015: 

The Cats boast two of the most reliable legs in the SEC in senior punter Landon Foster and sophomore placekicker Austin MacGinnis. Foster averaged 42.6 yards per punt last season, including a career-best 60-yarder. MacGinnis earned Freshman All-America honors.

Final Analysis

This is a critical season for Stoops and Kentucky. The administration has given him the resources — huge raises for him and his staff, a $120 million stadium renovation that opens this fall and a $45 million practice facility under construction — and Year 3 is time to deliver results.

The positive vibes of a 5–1 start last fall vanished with the Wildcats’ 0–6 finish. But after three straight top-40 recruiting classes and three springs and summers to develop that talent, Stoops is confident the tide is turning. “Significantly better right now,” he says. “I think it’s hard to put into words exactly. I definitely feel like we’re developing them to be a winning football team.” 

The Debate

Is Boom Williams the SEC's Top Breakout Player for 2015?

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#58 Northwestern Wildcats



Big Ten West Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Pat Fitzgerald, 60-53 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mick McCall | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Hankwitz

Pat Fitzgerald is the father of Northwestern football but his Wildcats have missed the postseason two seasons in a row after five straight bowl games. His roster returns a large chunk of the depth chart — try 15 starters — but he has to plug holes at key positions like quarterback. His roster is in good shape but he needs to regain some former magic if Northwestern wants to win the Big Ten West Division.

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Previewing Northwestern’s Offense for 2015

A unit that has backslid significantly since 2012 must recapture efficiency and explosiveness. The regeneration attempt will occur with a new starting quarterback, as senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson competed closely throughout the spring.

The offense hinges on three factors where Northwestern struggled in 2014: passing accuracy (57.4 percent), third-down conversions (40 percent) and QB mobility (minus-94 net yards).

The Wildcats can build around running back Justin Jackson, who had six 100-yard rushing performances and ranked fourth among Power 5 freshmen in all-purpose average (98.9 ypg). The return of Christian Jones, Northwestern’s leading receiver in 2012 and 2013, should boost an underperforming receiving corps. Northwestern could use Jones in the slot alongside super backs Dan Vitale and Garrett Dickerson — three big bodies who create matchup problems. Coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes Miles Shuler, Solomon Vault and others can stretch the field, as Northwestern recorded only 34 plays of 20 yards or longer last season, fewer than all but three FBS teams. “We have to get faster and more explosive and create more separation on the perimeter,” Fitzgerald says.

The line must protect better after several players switched positions.

Previewing Northwestern’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big Ten College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Recent recruiting upgrades could pay off as young defenders forced into major roles by injury last fall can build on their experience. Two of them, linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Godwin Igwebuike, combined for five interceptions and a forced fumble as redshirt freshmen. Both become full-time starters as Igwebuike joins three returning starters in a secondary that could be Northwestern’s best under Fitzgerald.

The Wildcats are experienced at cornerback and defensive end, where three veterans — Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo — return alongside Xavier Washington, the only true freshman defender to play in 2014. Odenigbo, who has 8.5 career sacks and forced three fumbles last year, had his best spring and could be ready to break out. 

Northwestern needs improved health and production at defensive tackle after allowing six opponents to eclipse 200 yards rushing last year. Outside linebacker also is thin as speedy senior Drew Smith becomes a full-time starter. 

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

Previewing Northwestern’s Specialists for 2015

Northwestern must restore its effectiveness in the kicking game after a down year. Punter Hunter Niswander stood out in spring ball as he tries to boost a unit that finished 121st and 118th nationally the past two years in net average. Jack Mitchell had a solid first season at kicker, connecting on 14-of-18 field-goal attempts, most notably the game-winner at Notre Dame. Shuler should help a below-average return game along with Vault, who averaged 26.2 yards on kick returns in limited work as a freshman.   

Final Analysis

A sense of normalcy is back at Northwestern, and so is a sense of urgency. The Wildcats understand what a third consecutive bowl-less campaign would do to a program still fighting the pre-1995 loser label. Fitzgerald has arguably his most talented defense, and if the special teams meet his expectations, the season once again could hinge on reigniting the offense. A drop-prone receiving corps must take a step forward, and an inconsistent line must protect the new quarterback, but there are weapons such as Jackson, Jones and Vitale.

Northwestern must navigate another tricky non-league schedule with Stanford and Duke but once again misses Ohio State and Michigan State in league play. “We’ve got to do the things winners do,” Fitzgerald says. “We’ve got to get that edge back.”

The Debate

Where Does Pat Fitzgerald Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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#56 Boston College Eagles





HEAD COACH: Steve Addazio, 14-12 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Todd Fitch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Don Brown

Steve Addazio has installed a personality in two seasons at Boston College. His teams have an identity, and the program is coming off back-to-back bowl games. The rest of the ACC knows exactly what it’s getting out of the Eagles on both sides of the ball and it’s still tough to stop. However, with just nine starters back, Addazio has his work cut out for him in the brutal Atlantic Division.

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Previewing Boston College’s Offense for 2015

With former offensive coordinator Ryan Day now the quarterbacks coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, new OC Todd Fitch will have to break in a new system, a new starting quarterback and a new offensive line that replaces five starters. In other words, while the Eagles have plenty of returning talent at running back, there are more questions than answers for an offense that rushed for 254.7 yards per game last year, good for 14th in the nation.

Expect quarterback Darius Wade to start. The sophomore threw only eight passes a year ago, and the 6'0", 201-pound dual threat will need to be more accurate than the departed Tyler Murphy (57 percent completion rate in 2014) for the offense to take the next step. Tight end/receiver Dan Crimmins was expected to be the top target for Wade, but his status with the team is uncertain as of late May.

The ground game should be in good hands with sophomore running back Jon Hilliman, who gained 860 yards with 13 touchdowns last fall. He will lead another committee approach that includes Myles Willis, Tyler Rouse and Marcus Outlow. Although not a running back, the speedy Sherman Alston should get plenty of carries from his wide receiver spot on jet sweeps, as the sophomore rushed for 352 yards at 10.4 yards per carry as a true freshman.

The only fly in the ointment may be the offensive line, which replaces all five starters. That said, coach Steve Addazio likes what he has on the interior, with sixth-year senior Harris Williams, who can play either guard or center, leading the way.

Previewing Boston College’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown always puts together an attacking unit that is led by a rugged front seven and utilizes a lot of creative blitzes. Expect that to be the case again and for the Eagles to repeat as one of the top defenses in the country against the run. A year ago, the Eagles finished second only to Michigan State in rush defense, allowing only 94.5 yards per game.

Clearly, the strength of the defense — and possibly the team overall — is in the front seven. The Eagles return five starters there, including three along a defensive line that returns tackles Truman Gutapfel and Connor Wujciak and end Kevin Kavalec. Along with other projected starter Malachi Moore at end, those four combined for 29.5 tackles for a loss last year and should increase that production in 2015.

The linebackers are led by senior Steven Daniels, who was second on the team with 72 tackles last year, including 7.0 for a loss. The secondary loses cornerback Manny Asprilla and safety Dominique Williams, but free safety Justin Simmons, the team’s leading tackler, is back. Simmons, who made 76 stops and two interceptions a year ago, can also play cornerback and gives the secondary leadership and experience. 

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

Previewing Boston College’s Specialists for 2015

The Eagles will need more consistency out of kicker Alex Howell, who made just 5-of-11 field goal attempts last year, including 3-of-9 from 40 yards or longer. Howell acquitted himself much better as a punter with a 42.5-yard average. Returns should be in good hands with Willis and Alston back to handle kick and punt return duties, respectively.

Final Analysis 

Addazio has this program going in the right direction after taking over a 2–10 team and putting together back-to-back winning seasons. Still, the question remains whether or not the Eagles can take that next step and become a true contender in the ACC. The defense should give this team a chance, but an inexperienced offense may prevent any giant leaps forward.

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#59 Memphis Tigers



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Justin Fuente, 17-20 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Darrell Dickey | DEF. COORDINATOR: Galen Scott

Justin Fuente has quickly changed the mindset of the Memphis program. This team was competitive against big-time competition last year and claimed a share of the American Athletic Conference championship. The offense should be solid with seven starters back, but Fuente has to replace eight starters and a coordinator on the defensive side of the ball. If things fall into place quickly, this team is a top challenger in the AAC once again.

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Previewing Memphis’ Offense for 2015

When he named Paxton Lynch, a 6'7" freshman, his starting quarterback before the start of the 2013 season, Memphis coach Justin Fuente encountered mild criticism. Fuente never wavered in his belief that Lynch could develop into one of the American Athletic Conference’s top quarterbacks. After struggling his freshman season, Lynch blossomed last fall. He passed for 3,031 yards — becoming only the third Tigers quarterback to surpass 3,000 yards in a season — to lead the program to its first 10-win season since 1938 and its first bowl game since 2008.

At running back, the Tigers lost veteran Brandon Hayes, who finished just shy of 1,000 yards, but return Doroland Dorceus, who missed most of the season and spring practice with a knee injury. Sophomore Jarvis Cooper is a punishing 250-pounder who possesses deceptive speed. He should be a first option in goal-line situations. Junior Sam Craft is a multi-purpose talent who could line up in the backfield or at receiver.

Memphis returns leading receiver Mose Frazier, more efficient than flashy operating out of the slot. In all, four of the team’s top six receivers are back, including tight end Alan Cross, who was a first-team all-league selection last year. 

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

Previewing Memphis’ Defense for 2015

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

One of the league’s top defensive units was hit hard by losses as it must replace eight starters. Plus, highly regarded coordinator Barry Odom left to return to Missouri, his alma mater, in the same role. Associate head coach and linebackers coach Galen Scott steps into Odom’s position.

Scott has to find three new starting linebackers, three new starting defensive backs and two new starting defensive linemen. Cornerback Bobby McCain was a four-year starter, and defensive end Martin Ifedi was the school’s career sacks leader. Linebacker Tank Jakes was the league’s co-Defensive Player of the Year.

In their places, Scott could insert Dontrell Nelson at cornerback, Latarius Brady at defensive end and Wynton McManis at linebacker. All played extensively as reserves with Nelson returning an interception 58 yards for a touchdown.

The top defensive returnee will be end/linebacker Jackson Dillon, a rangy, hard-hitting player who forced two fumbles and had nine tackles for a loss. Nelson and junior Chauncey Lanier are the leading candidates to start at cornerback. Free safety Reggis Ball is the lone returning starter in the secondary.

Previewing Memphis’ Specialists for 2015

Memphis returns the league’s top kicker and reigning conference Special Teams Player of Year in Jake Elliott, whose season included a dramatic 54-yard, game-tying field goal in the first overtime of the Tigers’ win over BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl. He has made 37-of-50 field goals in his first two seasons, including the game-winner in the closing seconds at Temple last year that made the Tigers bowl-eligible. The punting game is solid behind sophomores Spencer Smith and Nick Jacobs. On kickoffs, the Tigers will attempt to snap what is believed to be nation’s longest drought. Memphis has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 1996.

Final Analysis 

After going 10–3 last season and claiming a share of the AAC title, the Tigers are poised to repeat those successes. With Lynch at quarterback, the Tigers will possess a potent offense, one capable of overcoming whatever a rebuilding defense allows. A running game featuring two physical, punishing backs could be potent. Defensively, the Tigers will have to find replacements for eight players, including two — McCain and Ifedi — who will be playing in the NFL. How quickly the secondary develops in a pass-oriented conference could determine the team’s ability to repeat as league champs.


#53 Iowa Hawkeyes





HEAD COACH: Kirk Ferentz, 115-85 (16 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Greg Davis | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Parker

Kirk Ferentz is entering his 17th season at the helm of the Iowa Hawkeyes football program. He’s seen amazing highs — two Orange Bowls and two Big Ten titles — and plenty of lows. For all of the heat he’s taken, Ferentz has still gotten Iowa to 12 bowls games in his last 14 seasons. That should once again be the target of the ’15 squad. The question is how many more solid but uninspiring seasons will keep Hawkeyes fans happy? 

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Previewing Iowa’s Offense for 2015

The end of last season was also the end of Jake Rudock as an Iowa quarterback. Rudock, who started 25 of Iowa’s last 26 games, transferred to Michigan after being passed on the depth chart by junior C.J. Beathard shortly after last season.

Rudock had a 14–11 record as Iowa’s starting quarterback but was criticized for being too conservative as a passer, often settling for safer underneath routes instead of throwing downfield. Beathard, on the other hand, is blessed with a powerful right arm and likes to use it. The Tennessee native, who is the grandson of former NFL executive Bobby Beathard, played in nine games last season, starting one. He replaced an injured Rudock for the second half against Pittsburgh and for the entire game at Purdue. Iowa won both games, which fueled Beathard’s popularity. Keeping Beathard healthy will be of utmost importance because no other quarterback on the roster has any game experience.

Senior Jordan Canzeri takes over for the departed Mark Weisman as the starting running back. Canzeri is faster and shiftier than the 240-pound Weisman, but Canzeri also is injury prone. Junior LeShun Daniels also will be in the mix at running back after missing most of last season with an injury. The 225-pound Daniels probably has the best combination of power and speed among all the Iowa running backs.

Much is expected from senior receiver Tevaun Smith and senior tight end Jake Duzey. Smith led Iowa with 596 receiving yards last season, while Duzey was third with 392 receiving yards.

Previewing Iowa’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big Ten College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

As disappointing as the Iowa offense was last season, the defense wasn’t much better. You could argue that it was worse in the TaxSlayer Bowl, as Tennessee shredded the Iowa defense for 461 total yards, including 283 rushing yards.

It won’t matter a whole lot what the offense does if the defense continues to struggle. There are some quality pieces to build around, most notably All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott and All-Big Ten cornerback Desmond King.

However, the linebackers are a major concern, and there will be new starters at both tackle positions. All three of Iowa’s starting linebackers are sophomores who were rushed into duty last season as freshmen. They flashed at times but were overmatched on many occasions.

The secondary, with three starters returning, is probably the strength on defense, although it was hard to tell during the loss to Tennessee because of all the missed tackles.

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

Previewing Iowa’s Specialists for 2015

Senior kicker Marshall Koehn might have improved more than any player on the team last season. He went from being a liability in the early stages of the season to a strength at the end. He made 12 of his 16 field-goal attempts and was impressive during spring practice. In fact, Koehn has impressed the coaches enough to where they also might let him punt. Seniors Connor Kornbrath and Dillon Kidd, both of whom are on scholarship, shared the punting responsibilities last season, but neither has distinguished himself. 

Final Analysis

It seems like with every strength that Iowa has, there is a weakness to offset it. Three starters return on the offensive line, but both tackles have to be replaced, including Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff. Both starters return at defensive end, but neither starter returns at defensive tackle.

Beathard is considered more athletic than Rudock, but he still is mostly unproven as a Big Ten starting quarterback.

Iowa has been average over the past three seasons with a 19–19 record. Expect more of the same from this team despite another favorable schedule.

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