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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#28 Oklahoma State Cowboys

NATIONAL FORECAST

#28

Big 12 PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Mike Gundy, 84-44 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Yurcich | DEF. COORDINATOR: Glenn Spencer

Oklahoma State stumbled through its worst season since 2007, finishing 7-6 for the first season with fewer than eight wins since Mike Gundy’s second season. The Cowboys entered the season knowing they were in store for a rebuilding season. The Cowboys enter this season hoping that rebuilding is well on its way to being complete. At least at quarterback — always a position of interest under Gundy at Oklahoma State — the personnel is settled and ready to rise.

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Previewing Oklahoma State’s Offense for 2015: 
 

Mike Gundy didn’t want to use quarterback Mason Rudolph in 2014. He still carries a trace of regret for doing so.

A tiny trace.

Rudolph, forced into action by injury in the season’s 10th game last fall, tossed aside his redshirt, fueled Oklahoma State’s late surge and provided much of the momentum that has the Cowboys as a stealthy pick to contend in the Big 12.

The Cowboys were mired in a four-game losing streak that would stretch to five in Rudolph’s first start, which became necessary due to injury. Yet even in that 49–28 loss to Baylor, Rudolph goosed a scuffling Oklahoma State offense with his live arm and moxie. 

Then he led an upset of Bedlam rival Oklahoma, pushing the Cowboys to 6–6 and bowl eligibility. And he was at it again in the Cactus Bowl against Washington, directing another win and driving optimism for a big season ahead.

“The best thing we did last year,” Gundy said, “was play him at the end of the year, when all the discussions were, ‘Do you play him or not?’”

Rudolph will have plenty of playmakers at his disposal, particularly at receiver, where nine of the top 10 pass catchers return, headlined by Brandon Sheperd and James Washington, physical and fast receivers who can dominate defensive backs. And there’s more, many more, including intriguing redshirt freshman Keenen Brown, a big wideout who wowed with the big spring.

The offensive line should be improved, bolstered by the addition of left tackle Victor Salako, a 6'6", 330-pounder with 23 career starts, freed to move when UAB dissolved its football program.

There are questions at running back, although one answer could come in August when four-star junior college recruit Chris Carson arrives.

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 Oklahoma State’s Defense for 2015: 
 

Overworked a year ago due to depth concerns and an offense that struggled through the heart of the schedule, the Cowboys defense now looks loaded.

There’s star power at every level, beginning with defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, who emerged as a force in 2014. Using his strength and burst on the edge, he amassed 11 sacks, 17 tackles for a loss and the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year award.

Ogbah is flanked by productive senior Jimmy Bean at the other end, giving the Cowboys strong bookends to accompany two new tackles. One of the major spring developments was sophomore Vincent Taylor’s emergence as a force inside.

Senior Ryan Simmons leads a promising young linebacking corps that runs three deep, while cornerback Kevin Peterson is the heart of a secondary that is also young yet talented.

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

Previewing Oklahoma State’s Specialists for 2015: 
 

Ben Grogan followed a shaky freshman season by missing three of his first five field goal tries a year ago. Then he drilled 20 of his last 23, finishing ninth nationally at 1.69 field goals made per game and transforming into a reliable weapon. The Cowboys will have a new punter. Return men are also needed, although capable candidates should be found from a surplus of receivers.

Final Analysis
 

With the loss of 28 seniors leaving an inexperienced cast to try and contend in the Big 12, the 2014 season always figured to be a rebuilding effort. And it played out as such, turning worse when injuries and a lack of depth left the Cowboys exposed.

But Rudolph’s arrival, both to the lineup and as a key piece to the future, reversed course and momentum. Now there’s talk that Oklahoma State, like TCU a year ago, could rise from seventh place to the top of the Big 12 in 2015.

The Debate

Where Does Mike Gundy Rank Among Big 12 Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#27 Missouri Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#27

SEC East PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Gary Pinkel, 113-66 (14 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Josh Henson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Barry Odom

Doubt Missouri at your own peril. The Tigers weren’t thought to be any kind of prize for the SEC during conference realignment three seasons ago. After two trips to the SEC title game, Missouri has been one of the biggest success stories of conference-to-conference shuffling. A key to that success has been a pass rush that has produced two SEC Defensive Players of the Year. Missouri has won 23 games the last two seasons, but the Tigers will try to continue that momentum while rebuilding the cornerstone of the defense.

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Previewing Missouri’s Offense for 2015: 
 

Maty Mauk is nothing if not resilient: Mizzou’s junior quarterback played his best ball late in games and late in the season. The Missouri offense didn’t dominate, but it did enough to get out of the defense’s way late in the year. Mauk will be asked to raise his game significantly in 2015, however, as his receiving corps is about as green as green can be.

Losing all three starters for the second consecutive season will take a toll on anybody’s receiver depth, and it has left Mizzou with a black hole on an otherwise seasoned two-deep. Returning wideouts have combined for just 10 career catches, five from the “leading” returnee, sophomore Nate Brown. The lack of experience at wideout could mean Mizzou leans more heavily on the tight end position that returns starter Sean Culkin and athletic backups Jason Reese and Kendall Blanton.

If the passing game can avoid becoming a complete liability, the run game could thrive. Senior Russell Hansbrough rushed for 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns last season; his return will make the loss of all-purpose star Marcus Murphy a bit more palatable. 

Meanwhile, an offensive line that struggled early in 2014 jelled and became a strength as the season progressed. Potential All-SEC center Evan Boehm and three-year starter Connor McGovern return, as do three other seniors with starting experience.

 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 Missouri’s Defense for 2015:  
 

When defensive coordinator Dave Steckel left to take the head coaching position at Missouri State, Gary Pinkel didn’t have to look far for a replacement. He simply called up former Mizzou assistant Barry Odom, who had spent the last three seasons engineering a dramatic turnaround as Memphis’ defensive coordinator. And for the time being, at least, Pinkel was also able to retain highly regarded defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski.

Kuligowski’s ends will be awfully young, led by sophomore Charles Harris, freshman Walter Brady and junior college recruit Marcel Frazier. But the tackle position could be as strong and deep as it has ever been. Harold Brantley is an exciting weapon on the interior, man-mountain Josh Augusta should be ready for a larger role, and blue-chip freshman Terry Beckner Jr. is expected to quickly carve out a niche in the rotation the moment fall camp begins. Brantley's status for 2015 is uncertain after he was injured in a car wreck on June 21.

The line is greener than it has been for a while, but this might be the most battle-tested, experienced linebacking corps Pinkel has had at Missouri. Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer were steadying forces last fall, taking advantage of the attention blockers had to pay to linemen and combining for 113 solo tackles and 123 assists. Likely strong-side starter Donavin Newsom could become a key attacker in Odom’s aggressive defense.

The return of three experienced cornerbacks and senior safety Ian Simon might give Odom reason to get aggressive in the back of the defense. Kenya Dennis, Aarion Penton and John Gibson give Mizzou an experienced, confident trio of corners, but stalwart strong safety Braylon Webb’s graduation opens up opportunity for peril.

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

Previewing Missouri’s Specialists for 2015: 
 

Longtime placekicker and kickoffs specialist Andrew Baggett might take on more duty in 2015. He finished the spring listed as Mizzou’s starting punter, though incoming freshman Corey Fatony will be given an opportunity to unseat him in fall camp. Meanwhile, the Tigers will be looking for two new return men to replace Murphy.

Final Analysis
 

The Tigers boast solid experience at a majority of units on offense and defense, but they are young at defensive end and ultra-young at receiver, where they must replace all three starters for the second straight year. That seems like a lot to overcome in the battle for a third straight SEC East crown, but suddenly you don’t make much money betting against Pinkel.

The Debate

Is Gary Pinkel One of the Top Five Coaches in the SEC?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#37 South Carolina Gamecocks

NATIONAL FORECAST

#37

SEC East PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Steve Spurrier, 84-45 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Spurrier | DEF. COORDINATOR: Lorenzo Ward, Jon Hoke

South Carolina’s season was lost in essence before the first Saturday of the season. The Gamecocks lost 52-28 at home to Texas A&M on the first Thursday night of the year, exposing Carolina’s defense and derailing the Gamecocks’ bid for the SEC East. South Carolina finished 7-6 overall and 3-5 in the SEC for its worst season since 2009. The defense was the main culprit, and Steve Spurrier hired Jon Hoke with hopes of a remedy. The question at South Carolina, though, seems to be more big picture: Was 2014 a minor speed bump for a program that won 33 games in the previous three seasons or was it the first season in a decline.

Previewing South Carolina’s Offense in 2015
 

First things first: South Carolina must find a quarterback. Dylan Thompson set the school’s single-season passing record last year with 3,564 yards. The frontrunner to replace him entering the fall is sophomore Connor Mitch. The former four-star prospect threw for 12,078 yards at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, N.C., with 63 touchdown passes in his senior season.

“Connor Mitch is tremendously improved from when he first got here,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier says. “He seems to have a little bit more confidence and knows what to do now. I think he’s ready to take some giant steps.”

Mitch threw six passes last year, completing two of them for 19 yards. He will be trying to hold off junior walk-on Perry Orth, who bags groceries at Publix to help offset his collegiate expenses, and freshman Michael Scarnecchia, a lightly recruited Floridian who redshirted last year.

Senior Brandon Wilds and sophomore David Williams will share carries at running back after Mike Davis’ early entry into the NFL Draft. Junior wide receiver Pharoh Cooper didn’t get much work in the spring because the Gamecocks already know what he can do. The All-SEC first-teamer will be Spurrier’s go-to guy after catching 69 passes for 1,136 yards in 2014.

Up front, the Gamecocks must replace stalwart A.J. Cann, who started 51 games at South Carolina. Senior right tackle Brandon Shell takes up the status of grizzled veteran thanks to his 36 career starts, twice as many as anyone else on the team.

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

Previewing South Carolina’s Defense in 2015
 

The defense was terrible last year, prompting Spurrier to hire old friend Jon Hoke, who coordinated defense for Spurrier at Florida from 1999-2001 and spent the last 13 years in the NFL as a defensive backs coach. 

“Jon fits in everywhere he goes because he’s a good person, good guy,” Spurrier says. “He’s been around a lot of really sharp coaches, and I think he’s a sharp coach. But he’s got a lot of work to do, he will tell you that.”

The Gamecocks were No. 92 in the nation in total defense last year, and Hoke already has made changes. South Carolina will use a base 4-3 rather than last year’s juggling between a 4-2-5 and 3-4 look, and several players have swapped positions. Safety T.J. Gurley is now a nickel back. Spur Jordan Diggs is a safety. Spur Larenz Bryant is a linebacker, and Bryson Allen-Williams is back to his natural position at strong-side linebacker. Graduate transfer safety Isaiah Johnson will be plugged in immediately.

None of that shuffling will matter, though, if the Gamecocks don’t improve their defensive line. They were No. 118 in the nation in sacks (14.0) and No. 121 tackles for a loss (52.0) last year. South Carolina recruited seven defensive linemen to help fix the problem. The most promising is junior college transfer Marquavius Lewis.

Previewing South Carolina’s Specialists in 2015
 

Kicker Elliott Fry, a 158-pounder who walked on out of Frisco, Texas, and won the job as a true freshman, is back for his junior season. He’s made 33-of-43 field goals for his career. Walk-on transfer Sean Kelly looks like the frontrunner for the punting job.

Final Analysis 
 

South Carolina opened spring practice with a sense of urgency that may have been lacking last season.

“Sometimes after you go 11–2 three years in a row, some people just assume, ‘We’re going to keep on winning,’ but it didn’t quite happen that way,” Spurrier says. “We were not a real strong team. We are by a long way not a finished product, but we’ve got time.”

The Gamecocks will be breaking in a new quarterback and rebuilding a defense that lost its morale along with a lot of games last year, so the time had better be well spent.

The Debate

Where Does Steve Spurrier Rank Among SEC Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#35 Virginia Tech Hokies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#35

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Frank Beamer , 231-115-2 (27 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Scot Loeffler | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bud Foster

Virginia Tech is at a crossroads of sorts. The Hokies went to the ACC championship game six times in their first eight seasons in the league. Since then, Virginia Tech is 12-12 in the league. A 6-6 season saved the Hokies from missing the postseason for the first time since 1992. A bowl win preserved a streak of 22 consecutive winning seasons. The streaks look good in the media guide, but Virginia Tech will be hard-pressed to reverse its slide.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

Previewing Virginia Tech’s Offense in 2015
 

It’s now-or-never for the Hokies under third-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, who spent Year 1 introducing his system and Year 2 dealing with youth and injuries. All the major players are back, including quarterback Michael Brewer, a Texas Tech transfer whose good moments last year were often negated by bad ones. He threw for 18 touchdowns and 2,692 yards but also 15 interceptions, 11 coming in the first six games.

He’s more experienced now, as are his offensive weapons. Receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips combined for 96 catches, 1,207 yards and nine touchdowns as freshmen, and Bucky Hodges shattered all the school’s tight end records with 45 catches, 526 yards and seven touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. Just who will carry the ball remains a question, with Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams coming off ACL injuries (and McKenzie some legal issues). But 2013 leading rusher Trey Edmunds is healthy again, and J.C. Coleman showed he could carry the load after rushing for 468 yards in the final four games last year.

As always, the offensive line is a question, but coaches were encouraged by the starting five in the spring, particularly left guard Wyatt Teller, a bruiser who entered the starting lineup midway through last year and earned O-line MVP honors. If the line jells, the stable of young playmakers makes a jump, and Brewer can cut down his turnovers, the Hokies have a chance to churn out a decent offense for the first time in years. 

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.

Previewing Virginia Tech’s Defense for 2015
 

The strength of Bud Foster’s group lies in the trenches and on the back end. The Hokies have four starting defensive linemen who have earned All-ACC recognition in their careers. Tackle Luther Maddy returns from a medical redshirt, paired with undersized but quick Corey Marshall on the interior. The ends are even more disruptive. Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem combined for 18.5 sacks and 33 tackles for a loss last year, the most productive D-line tandem in the ACC.

The secondary is in flux because of spring absences, but cornerback Kendall Fuller is a stud, an All-American who might be the best the program has produced. The big domino is cornerback Brandon Facyson, who missed last year with a stress fracture in his leg, which he reinjured at practice in December. If he returns to form, it allows Tech to move the versatile Chuck Clark to his more natural position at safety. This group gave up a ton of big plays last year, but it’s as talented as ever.

The biggest question mark is at linebacker, where Deon Clarke returns but Andrew Motuapuaka is a first-year starter. Nevertheless, the Hokies are set up to rush the passer and cover, two hallmarks of Foster’s defenses over the years. 

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

Previewing Virginia Tech’s Specialists for 2015
 

Kicker Joey Slye (20-of-28 on field goals) has the leg to go 50-plus if his accuracy comes around. Punter A.J. Hughes had offseason back surgery, partly explaining why his average fell from 44.1 in 2013 to 39.9 last season. Greg Stroman nearly broke half a dozen punt returns for touchdowns last year, although the stagnant kick return game needs a jumpstart.

Final Analysis
 

Virginia Tech is 22–17 overall and a .500 team in the league since 2012, prompting the uncomfortable conversation about how much longer revered coach Frank Beamer will walk the sideline in Blacksburg. A return to prominence would quash that talk, and with 16 returning starters, including a promising group of up-and-coming playmakers on offense and Foster’s usual great defense, Virginia Tech has a chance to challenge in the Coastal Division again. Another middling season, however, will only intensify the chatter that perhaps it’s time for Beamer to pass the torch.

The Debate

Does Frank Beamer Rank Among the ACC's Best Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#30 Arizona Wildcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#30

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Rich Rodriguez, 26-14 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Calvin Magee, Rod Smith | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Casteel

Arizona fans undoubtedly felt a sense of optimism with the arrival of Rich Rodriguez to Tucson. The Wildcats hoped Rodriguez could do for them what he did for West Virginia in turning a program with pockets of success into one with staying power. Even 2014, though, had to come as a bit of surprise. In only his third season at Arizona, Rodriguez led the Wildcats to the Pac-12 title game and their first 10-win season and ranked season since 1998. Could Arizona be a contender for a second consecutive year? With the backfield of Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson, a Lombardi Award winner in Scooby Wright and RichRod in tow, Arizona can’t be counted out.

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Previewing Arizona’s Offense in 2015
 

Sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon is the first holdover QB starter at Arizona since Nick Foles in 2010-11. He is not a fast runner, nor notably elusive, and he doesn’t have NFL-type arm strength. But as he was as a Las Vegas prep quarterback — 57–3 with four state championships — he has proved to be a winner at Arizona. 

Solomon’s numbers — 3,793 passing yards and 28 touchdown passes — broke school freshman records. Redshirt freshman Brandon Dawkins struggled with passing accuracy in spring practice. Fifth-year senior Jerrard Randall, once an LSU quarterback, is a running threat with explosiveness, but his decision-making and accuracy have kept him on the bench. 

Sophomore tailback Nick Wilson required little break-in time, gaining 1,375 yards as a freshman. He is a power runner with what coach Rich Rodriguez calls “good eyes,” adept at hitting openings and making something out of nothing. Fifth-year senior Jared Baker is the clear No. 2. 

Cayleb Jones is among the nation’s best receivers. In his first year as a starter, he caught 73 balls for 1,019 yards and was a go-to receiver in clutch situations. He heads a deep and experienced group, which is the strength of Arizona’s offense. Samajie Grant became a big-play receiver with 45 receptions, six for touchdowns. 

Losing three-year starting tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele hasn’t been a setback. Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa will start at left tackle and is expected to play at an all-conference level. Guards Jacob Alsadek and Cayman Bundage are returning starters, and the new right tackle, Lene Maiava, has started at two positions up front. The uncertainty is at center; two former walk-ons, Carter Wood and David Catalano, are frontrunners.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Arizona’s Defense in 2015
 

Senior end Reggie Gilbert was awarded a fifth year by the NCAA, which was one of the triumphs of spring practice for Arizona. He is the rock of Arizona’s three-man front. Junior Sani Fuimaono and sophomore Parker Zellers will likely split the nose guard job; both played extensively, although Zellers, listed at 247 pounds, gets by on instincts rather than strength.

If linebacker Scooby Wright can match his sophomore numbers — 163 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss, 14 sacks — the Wildcats will be hard to beat. The Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year has considerable experience beside him: Juniors Cody Ippolito, Jake Matthews and Derrick Turituri all started at least six games.  

Arizona didn’t pause long to replace three starters in its secondary. Senior safeties Jamar Allah and Tellas Jones combined for 47 tackles last season and are physical players. Sophomore cornerback Jarvis McCall Jr., who started 12 games, might have difficulty reclaiming his job. Junior DaVonte’ Neal, who was a receiver/returner last year, moved to corner in spring ball and appeared to win the job. The Notre Dame transfer likely will be joined at the other corner by sophomore Cam Denson, also a former receiver/returner but now strictly a defensive player. 

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

Previewing Arizona’s Specialists in 2015
 

Senior kicker Casey Skowron and senior punter Drew Riggleman were so good last season that Rodriguez awarded both with full scholarships midway through the season. Skowron made 20-of-28 field-goal attempts, including a game-winner against Washington. Riggleman was second in the Pac-12 in punting average, at 46.1.

Final Analysis
 

Arizona has won 26 games in Rodriguez’s first three seasons, the most of any three-year period in school history. “I’m not saying we’re ahead of expectations,” says Rodriguez, “because we need to get deeper and tougher.” This is Rodriguez’s top group at Arizona, but it must play 12 weeks in succession without a bye.

The Debate

Is Rich Rodriguez the Best Coach in the Pac-12?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#32 Penn State Nittany Lions

NATIONAL FORECAST

#32

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: James Franklin, 7-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Donovan | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bob Shoop

If not for an NCAA decision midway through 2014, the highlight of last season may have been a win over UCF on Aug. 30 across the Atlantic Ocean. The Nittany Lions started 4-0 but struggled through most of the season thanks largely to a thin offensive line. They did, however, get to six wins, key since the NCAA lifted their bowl ban. Penn State took advantage by defeating Boston College 31-30 in the Pinstripe Bowl. That progress should continue in the second season under James Franklin and the first full season as Penn State returns to full strength.

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Previewing Penn State’s Offense in 2015 
 

Christian Hackenberg is looking for a bounce-back season after seeing his touchdown-interception ratio go from 20-to-10 as a freshman to 12-to-15 as a sophomore. But most of the questions on offense concern his supporting cast. 

Hackenberg was sacked a Big Ten-worst 44 times last year, so figuring out how to protect No. 14 is high on the to-do list. The Lions have six linemen with starting experience back, a big improvement over last year, when only one member of the first-team unit had ever started a college game prior to opening day. 

The receiving corps mirrors the line, in that it’s looking to reap the benefits of last year’s trial by fire. Sophomores DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall all saw extensive action in 2014, with Hamilton catching a league-best 82 passes. 

In the backfield, the Lions welcome back last year’s leading rusher, junior Akeel Lynch, along with a quintet of highly regarded freshmen. 

With most of his supporting cast returning, hopes are ratcheting back up for Hackenberg’s junior season. In the two games last season in which he was healthy and well-protected — the opener vs. UCF and the Pinstripe Bowl vs. Boston College — he combined to complete 68 percent of his passes for 825 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions. That’ll do nicely. 

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 Penn State’s Defense in 2015
 

Tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel are rock solid. The 6'4", 325-pound Johnson was the unsung hero of a Penn State defense that last season ranked third nationally against the run. Zettel, meanwhile, played a very prominent role, leading the team in tackles for a loss (17) and sacks (eight) and tying for the lead in interceptions (three). 

The Lions will have two holes to fill at defensive end — Garrett Sickels and Carl Nassib are the leading candidates — but their biggest vacancy is at middle linebacker, where someone needs to replace last year’s Big Ten tackling leader, Mike Hull. Junior Nyeem Wartman, a two-year starter at outside backer, slid inside in spring practice, with returning starter Brandon Bell and sophomore Jason Cabinda outside. 

The secondary returns three starters and should be a strength. Marcus Allen started the last seven games of his true freshman season and “played as well as any safety in college football the second half of the year,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop says. At free safety, the Lions will rely on Jordan Lucas, a two-year starter at cornerback. Sophomore Grant Haley looks like the leading contender for Lucas’ former position, while senior Trevor Williams returns at the opposite cornerback spot.  

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

 

Previewing Penn State’s Specialists in 2015
 

Franklin referred to walk-on Joey Julius as “Big Toe” this spring. A redshirt freshman, Julius has yet to attempt a field goal or PAT in a college game, but he’s battling deposed punter Chris Gulla for the job. The Lions punted erratically last season, so there’s a competition under way between Daniel Pasquariello and Robby Liebel. 

Final Analysis
 

The Lions have addressed their glaring weakness, building depth and experience along a patchwork offensive line. They’ll still be young up front, with only one senior on the projected two-deep (two if you count incoming graduate transfer Kevin Reihner), but the line probably won’t be as big of a liability. On the opposite side of the ball, they return seven starters from what was, statistically, the Big Ten’s best defense last season. 

Of Penn State’s six losses last fall, only two were by more than a touchdown. If the defense holds strong and Hackenberg gets a chance to show what he can do, it’s not hard to imagine the Lions turning a few of those close losses into close wins in 2015. 

The Debate

Where Does James Franklin Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#33 Texas Longhorns

NATIONAL FORECAST

#33

Big 12 PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Charlie Strong, 6-7 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shawn Watson, Joe Wickline | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vance Bedford

The first year of Charlie Strong’s tenure ended in essence where it started. In the second game of the season, Texas lost 41-7 to BYU. The Longhorns finished with an offensively inept 31-7 loss to Arkansas in a bowl game. That, of course, is not even close to good enough for Texas. Yet despite these low points, Texas managed to win three of its last four regular season games and finish 5-4 in the Big 12. The Longhorns defeated Texas Tech and Oklahoma State on the road and a ranked West Virginia team at home, which will have to suffice for a team that lost to Baylor, Kansas State and TCU by a combined score of 99-17. Progress in 2015, however, will need to be more pronounced.

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Previewing the Texas Offense in 2015:
 

Gone is the pro-style offense installed last year for quarterbacks David Ash (medical hardship) and Max Wittek, a graduate-transfer prospect who never graduated from USC.

The offense has been replaced by an up-tempo, spread attack that should feature the dual-threat talents of Tyrone Swoopes, redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard and incoming freshman Kai Locksley.

Swoopes, who went 5–7 as the starter in 2014 with 13 TD passes and 11 INTs, was still the team’s No. 1 QB coming out of the spring. But Heard had “really closed the gap,” according to head coach Charlie Strong. And quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson said the development of Heard was “the single-most important thing” that happened to the team in the spring. There’s a chance coaches will play both QBs early in the season until one truly separates.

Senior Johnathan Gray leads a talented group of running backs that includes redshirt freshman Donald “Duke” Catalon and sophomore D’Onta Foreman, a 231-pound bruiser who averaged 4.9 yards per carry.

The big questions on offense are on the line and at receiver. Six offensive linemen, including four early enrollees, were signed in the 2015 class to beef up a group devoid of talent and depth last season. At receiver, coaches want multiple playmakers to emerge after the departure of 1,000-yard receiver John Harris. But none of the leading candidates are proven.

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 the Texas Defense in 2015:
 

The D-line is the strength of the football team. Senior tackle Desmond Jackson, who is returning from a lisfranc (foot) injury, and Hassan Ridgeway lead a deep and talented group of tackles and ends.

Linebacker is a big question mark after losing the team’s top two tacklers from last season — Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond. Coaches will turn first to senior Peter Jinkens and junior Tim Cole. If those two don’t step up, the linebacking corps will be taken over by a highly decorated group of freshmen, including Ed Freeman and five-star early enrollee Malik Jefferson.

Coaches had high hopes for senior corners Duke Thomas and Sheroid Evans. But Evans suffered a serious knee injury in the spring and is likely lost for the season. Like the linebacker position, a very talented group of freshmen could take over at corner. At safety, Jason Hall is a big hitter, and former walk-on Dylan Haines led the team in interceptions (four) last season.

Previewing the Texas Specialists in 2015: 
 

Texas had some of the nation’s worst special teams last season. Strong hired Jeff Traylor, a highly successful coach at perennial power Gilmer High in East Texas, to improve things as tight ends/special teams coach. Texas will count on kicker Nick Rose, who is 14-of-21 on career field-goal attempts, and walk-on punter Mitchell Becker. Speedsters Daje Johnson, Jacorey Warrick and freshman Ryan Newsome hope to improve an anemic return game.

Final Analysis
 

Charlie Strong is still rebuilding in many ways after replacing his offense as well as two assistant coaches (Strong fired receivers coach Les Koenning and tight ends coach Bruce Chambers) after one season. Strong brought in former Oklahoma co-OC Jay Norvell as receivers coach, and Traylor replaced Chambers.

The defense will undoubtedly be the strength again this year. Special teams must improve. But it will be the direction of an offense that averaged an anemic 21.4 points per game in 2014 that will determine the fate of the Longhorns this season.

With a schedule that includes road games against potential top-10 teams Notre Dame, TCU and Baylor, the quarterback play has to lead a turnaround in 2015 or the results could be very similar to last year’s 6–7.

The Debate

Where Does Charlie Strong Rank Among Big 12 Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#29 Nebraska Cornhuskers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#29

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Mike Riley, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Danny Langsdorf | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mark Banker

Nebraska football needed a culture change heading into 2015, and in new coach Mike Riley, the Cornhuskers have that. Nebraska traded the abrasive, tightly wound Bo Pelini for the former Oregon State coach who is known for being one of the most relaxed coaches in a profession marked by Type A personalities. Whether Riley can deliver different results from his predecessor remains to be seen. Nine and 10 wins became the norm for Pelini, yet that was a mark Riley hit only once since 2008.

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Previewing Nebraska’s Offense for 2015
 

Mike Riley has installed a pro-style offense with returning starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback. Armstrong, the team’s second-leading rusher a year ago behind the departed Ameer Abdullah, will become more of a pocket passer. 

Among the first things offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf told Armstrong was that he wasn’t a runner, though the threat of his running will continue to be a concern for opposing defenses, especially in third-down situations. Armstrong completed 53 percent of his passes for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns with 12 interceptions last season. Langsdorf is expecting increased efficiency.

Look for De’Mornay Pierson-El to be featured at wide receiver, along with veteran Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly, who came as a walk-on.

Terrell Newby and Imani Cross are the most experienced of the running backs, a position where there will be continued competition for playing time in fall camp as the Huskers look to replace departed All-American Ameer Abdullah.

Regardless of the system, success will depend on the play up front. The line is built around left tackle Alex Lewis, a candidate for postseason honors and the only returning lineman who started every game last season. He sets the tone emotionally.

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.

Previewing Nebraska’s Defense for 2015 
 

In the spring, players on defense talked about being freed up to make plays in coordinator Mark Banker’s system. Banker said, jokingly, he didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or that it meant the system was “like being in elementary school.” 

Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are returning starters at tackle. Collins’ quickness allowed him to lead the team in tackles for a loss in the previous system, so he could be even more effective. Valentine is a “load to block,” says defensive line coach Hank Hughes. Kevin Williams is a third proven tackle.

Depth is a concern at defensive end, where Greg McMullen returns, and linebacker, where young players will be in the mix with Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey, who returns after missing all of last season with a knee injury.

Safety Nate Gerry, cornerback Daniel Davie and nickel Byerson Cockrell are a place to start, but the secondary rotation will include young players, possibly a true freshman or two.

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

Previewing Nebraska’s Specialists for 2015
 

Pierson-El was among the best punt returners in the country as a true freshman, returning three for touchdowns. Special teams coach Bruce Read doesn’t plan to use him on kickoff returns, however, because of his importance as a receiver. Sam Foltz and Drew Brown are the returning punter and placekicker, respectively, and the recruits include long-snapper Jordan Ober. Nebraska hasn’t had an assistant assigned solely to special teams in the past. But such a position is “very, very key,” Riley says.

Final Analysis 
 

Nebraska won nine or more games in each of Bo Pelini’s seven seasons as coach. His overall record was 67–27. So Riley can expect to be held to a high standard. But he is considerably more engaging than his predecessor, which probably means there will be some degree of patience during the transition.

The non-conference schedule could be challenging, with an opener at home against BYU and a trip to Miami (Fla.) two weeks later. But the conference schedule is such that nine wins, even in transition, should be possible. Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999. Winning one this year would be a stretch, though the Huskers should contend in the Big Ten West if the defense improves.

The Debate

Will Tommy Armstrong Rank Among the Top Five Big Ten QBs in 2015?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#31 Utah Utes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#31

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Kyle Whittingham, 85-43 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Aaron Roderick, Jim Harding | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Pease

Utah should be feeling pretty good for 2015. The Utes are coming off their best season as Pac-12 member, winning nine games for the first time since 2010 and finishing with a winning conference record for the first time since moving over from the Mountain West. Yet Utah has reason for concern as defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen both left in arguably lateral moves. The defense is the question for the short term, but the long term question is if Utah will be able to continue the momentum that began in 2014.

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Previewing Utah’s Offense for 2015 
 

Utah quarterback Travis Wilson’s career was in question after the 2013 season due to an intracranial condition, but he was cleared to play and earned the starting job in 2014. Wilson’s up-and-down performance led to Kendal Thompson replacing him as the starter twice during the season, before Thompson’s knee injury enabled Wilson to regain the position through the Utes’ Las Vegas Bowl victory over Colorado State. 

Wilson succeeded in cutting down his interceptions from 16 as a sophomore to five as a junior, but he never seemed comfortable with former offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who’s now Texas A&M’s offensive line coach. Aaron Roderick, promoted as Utah’s co-offensive coordinator, wants Wilson to complete a higher percentage of passes. “We’re not trying to reinvent what we were doing. We just want to get better at it,” Roderick says.

Running back Devontae Booker was a big discovery for the Utes in 2014 as a junior college transfer. Once he established himself as the featured back, he became a consistent force in the Pac-12, averaging 130.1 yards in conference games. Booker is a tough inside runner with explosive speed, and his 1,512-yard total fell just short of the school’s single-season record. 

Utah will rely heavily on senior receiver Kenneth Scott, who led the team with 48 catches and four touchdowns, including a game-winning reception in overtime at Stanford. 

The Utes took a hit when tackle Jeremiah Poutasi entered the NFL Draft as a junior, but they return the bulk of a line that improved in position coach Jim Harding’s first season and paved the way for Booker’s big year. Left guard Isaac Asiata and center Siaosi Aiono are returning starters who played consistently.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Pac-12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Utah’s Defense for 2015
 

Utah must replace end Nate Orchard, who recorded 18.5 sacks. John Pease, the Utes’ new defensive coordinator, hopes that end Hunter Dimick will at least match his 10 sacks from last year, even though he will receive more attention now. 

Utah’s linebackers were hit with injuries last season, but the coaches pieced things together well enough for the Utes to rank second in the Pac-12 in total defense, allowing 393.5 yards per game.  Jared Norris is the group’s most productive player, capable of covering receivers and making big hits in the running game. Norris made a team-high 116 tackles, including 13 for a loss. 

The cornerback position is a concern for Pease after Dominique Hatfield was dismissed in July. Converted quarterback Jason Thompson was a surprise in the spring, competing at safety with Marcus Williams. 

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

Previewing Utah’s Specialists for 2015
 

Utah wants to move the ball and score touchdowns, but punting and kicking field goals are the team’s biggest strengths. Australian punter Tom Hackett averaged 46.7 yards, and 36 of his 80 punts went inside the 20-yard line. Andy Phillips missed a field goal in an overtime loss at Arizona State, but he was otherwise dependable, finishing 23-of-28 for the season, including 12-of-15 from 40 yards or longer.

Final Analysis 
 

Utah is getting closer. In their fourth season of Pac-12 membership, the Utes posted their first winning record (5–4) in conference play and competed favorably against nearly every opponent.  Coach Kyle Whittingham likes the program’s trajectory entering its fifth season in the Pac-12. “We’ve taken a step forward every year with our depth and talent on the roster, one through 85,” he says. “It’s still a work in progress … but we feel like last year we made a lot of headway.”

In 2015, the Utes hope to overcome a lack of experience at receiver and in the secondary while counting on their senior quarterback to play more consistently as he completes an adventurous career.

The Debate

Is Devontae Booker the Pac-12's Best Running Back?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#39 NC State Wolfpack

NATIONAL FORECAST

#39

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Dave Doeren, 11-14 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Canada | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Huxtable

NC State flashed its potential in a wild 56-41 loss to Florida State on Sept. 27. The Wolfpack just had to wait until November to deliver on it. NC State was one of the first teams of 2014 to give FSU a scare last season, leading the Seminoles until the final 3:24 of the third quarter. NC State struggled after that game, losing four in a row at one point. After regrouping in the final five games, the Wolfpack though won more games after Nov. 1 — finishing 4-1 — than it won all of 2013. After improving from 3-9 to 8-5 in Dave Doeren’s second season, NC State has reason to believe the momentum can continue.

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Previewing NC State’s Offense for 2015
 

NC State couldn’t have asked for much more from quarterback Jacoby Brissett last year. The Florida transfer threw for 2,606 yards, ran for 529 more, had a total of 26 touchdowns and threw only five interceptions. Multiple times during the season, coach Dave Doeren cited Brissett as the main reason for the team’s improvement from 3–9 to 8–5. This year, the Wolfpack will want a little more consistency from the senior, who finished the 2014 season with a flourish after a midseason slump. 

The running game, which averaged 204.5 yards per game last season (the program’s best since 1992), is in great shape with the return of running backs Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes. Three highly touted recruits — Johnny Frasier, Reggie Gallaspy and Nyheim Hines — join the rotation and have the type of talent to make an immediate impact.

Hines might have more of a role as a pass catcher and in jet sweep packages. The Wolfpack are thin at receiver, but senior tight end David J. Grinnage has developed into a reliable red zone target. Two new starting tackles will have to get acclimated on the offensive line, which is a major concern.

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.

Previewing NC State’s Defense for 2015
 

Doeren and defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable had hoped to establish NC State’s base defense and win without a high volume of blitzes. After seven games, they changed their strategy, and the defense responded with its best performances of the season.

Defensive end Mike Rose and defensive tackles Justin Jones, B.J. Hill, Kenton Gibbs and Monty Nelson all got valuable reps last season and will help offset the loss of seniors T.Y. McGill, Thomas Teal and Art Norman. Sophomore Kentavius Street, the prize of his recruiting class in 2014, will get more snaps inside this season, while sophomore Bradley Chubb has been moved from linebacker to end.

Linebacker was a question mark heading into last season, especially after expected starter M.J. Salahuddin tore ligaments in his left knee in August and missed the whole season. But sophomores Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore found their legs, especially after Huxtable loosened up the defense and used more blitzing schemes after an early October loss to Boston College.

All five starters return in the defensive backfield, led by senior free safety Hakim Jones, who had a team-best 80 tackles, and junior cornerback Jack Tocho, who is the team’s best defender in pass coverage.

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

Previewing NC State’s Specialists for 2015
 

The Wolfpack have to start over at all specialist positions after having the same kicker-punter-long snapper trio for four straight years. Freshman Kyle Bambard has to replace Niklas Sade, the school’s all-time leading scorer, at kicker. Bambard and freshman punter A.J. Cole both enrolled in January. The return game did not have much punch last year, but Doeren is excited about the potential of redshirt freshman receiver Maurice Trowell to return kickoffs and for Hines to help with punt returns.

Final Analysis 
 

NC State improved its win total by five games from 2013 to ’14. The Wolfpack hope to make another jump in 2015 with a veteran quarterback and seven starters back on defense. Another five-game improvement might be asking too much, but Doeren won’t put a ceiling on the program’s progress.

The key to moving the momentum forward again will be replacing main parts up front on both sides of the ball. But with the return of Brissett and a host of new talented recruits supplementing an already deep backfield, the Wolfpack have an opportunity to at least push Atlantic Division powers Florida State and Clemson.

The Debate

Where Does Jacoby Brissett Rank Among ACC QBs?

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