Athlon Sports 2015 ACC Magazine Cover Gallery


#3 Baylor Bears





HEAD COACH: Art Briles, 55-34 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kendal Briles | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Bennett

Art Briles has transformed Baylor into an annual Big 12 title contender, and the Bears are Athlon Sports’ pick to win the conference title and play in college football’s four-team playoff. Seth Russell is the next in line at quarterback in Waco, and the supporting cast is among the best in the nation with a deep receiving corps and solid offensive line. The defense should improve with the return of nine starters, including All-America end Shawn Oakman.

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Previewing Baylor’s Offense for 2015

Spencer Drango hasn’t scored one touchdown, taken a snap at quarterback, caught a pass or even gained a yard rushing. But when you’re talking about a Baylor offense that’s led the nation in each of the last two seasons, there’s not a more important piece to the puzzle than the All-America left tackle.

“It certainly gives us a better opportunity (to compete for a national championship) when you come out of the gates with guys that have been there,” eighth-year Baylor coach Art Briles says.

With Drango and the entire starting line returning intact, along with a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers, it certainly eases the transition to a new quarterback.

Fourth-year junior Seth Russell takes the reins from Bryce Petty, who threw for 8,055 yards and 61 touchdowns while leading the Bears to back-to-back Big 12 championships and a two-year record of 22–4. “He’s shown the ability to help our football team win with his feet and with his arm and with his intelligence,” Briles says of Russell, who’s much more of a running threat than Petty.

Joining Drango up front are Pat Colbert at the other tackle, Blake Muir and Jarell Broxton at guard and sophomore Kyle Fuller at center.

That’s music to the ears of junior running back Shock Linwood, a returning All-Big 12 pick who rushed for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. The Bears are also loaded at receiver with junior Corey Coleman and sophomore KD Cannon, a lethal duo that combined for 122 catches for 2,149 yards and 19 TDs.

Previewing Baylor’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big 12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Another pre-Signing Day recruiting coup was keeping defensive end Shawn Oakman in the fold for another year. A third-team All-America and first-team All-Big 12 selection, Oakman set the single-season school record for sacks (11.0) and was just shy of another mark with 19.5 tackles for a loss.

“I just think you can look at it a year from now, and you’re talking about a (Jadeveon) Clowney, one of those Ndamukong Suh’s, one of those J.J. Watt’s, where he will test well, he’ll play well,” defensive coordinator Phil Bennett says. 

Oakman anchors a front that includes All-Big 12 pick Andrew Billings at nose tackle, fifth-year senior Beau Blackshear at tackle and either Jamal Palmer or returning Freshman All-American K.J. Smith at the other end.

The linebacking crew went through a makeover with former junior college transfer Grant Campbell in the middle, another Freshman All-American in Taylor Young on the weak side and sophomore Travon Blanchard at the “Bear” position.

Easily the most scrutinized area is the secondary, where all four starters return intact. Juniors Xavien Howard and Ryan Reid are the corners, with Terrell Burt and Orion Stewart at safety, but the depth is better than it’s ever been.

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

Previewing Baylor’s Specialists for 2015 

There will be a lot of pressure on incoming freshman Drew Galitz, who was recruited to replace four-year starting punter Spencer Roth (43.7-yard career average). Kicker Chris Callahan had an up-and-down freshman season, missing five of his first six field goals, but he booted the game-winner to beat TCU and finished the season by making 17 of his last 20 attempts.

Final Analysis 

While the offense has led the charge in Baylor’s meteoric rise and back-to-back league championships, this year’s team will have to count on an experienced defense being dominant out of the gates, “because you’re starting a new QB,” Briles says. The much-maligned secondary will have to be vastly improved for the Bears to three-peat in a league race that might come down to a Nov. 27 showdown at TCU.

The Debate

Is Art Briles the Big 12's No. 1 Coach?

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#4 Auburn Tigers





HEAD COACH: Gus Malzahn, 20-7 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Rhett Lashlee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Will Muschamp

A year after winning the SEC Championship and falling short against Florida State in the national title, Auburn regressed to an 8-5 record in coach Gus Malzahn’s second year. But the Tigers are poised for a rebound in 2015, as Malzahn’s offense will be one of the nation’s best, and the defense should show marked improvement under new coordinator Will Muschamp.

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Previewing Auburn’s Offense for 2015

Few teams feel good about replacing six starters on offense, but Auburn should have little reason to worry. A blend of experienced backups ready to take the next step, incoming talent ready to make an instant impact and the mind of Gus Malzahn leave the Tigers in good position.

Expect Auburn’s offense to change, though. Gone are the days of Nick Marshall’s zone-read attack, replaced by a more balanced offense led by experienced backup Jeremy Johnson, who has been brilliant in brief glimpses over the past two seasons. D’haquille Williams (45 catches, 730 yards, five touchdowns) returns to lead the receiving corps, and reliable contributors Ricardo Louis and Marcus Davis — along with newcomer Jason Smith — look ready to step into the roles left by Sammie Coates and Quan Bray.

At running back, hyper-talented freshman Roc Thomas will compete against Jovon Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 junior college transfer, for the right to take over the lead role in an offense that has produced 11 1,000-yard rushing seasons in Malzahn’s nine years at the collegiate level. Those two will be running behind an offensive line that lost three starters but somehow returns six players who have made a start in the SEC, led by tackles Shon Coleman and Avery Young.

Previewing Auburn’s Defense for 2015 

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.

The big news in Auburn is the arrival of Will Muschamp, who tries to fix a defense that hasn’t been dominant since the last time he roamed Auburn’s sidelines.

Muschamp’s toughest task is fixing a pass rush that produced just 10 sacks in eight SEC games. Getting Carl Lawson back from a torn ACL that cost him last season will help, as Muschamp plans to plug the sophomore into the “Buck,” his hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker spot, and turn him loose. Lawson’s presence should also help free Montravius Adams, a rising star at defensive tackle. Auburn lost four senior contributors at tackle, but redshirt freshman Dontavius Russell could be a star, and five-star defensive end Byron Cowart is on his way.

The top three tacklers from 2014 — safety Johnathan Ford, linebacker Cassanova McKinzy and linebacker Kris Frost — are all back, along with Jonathan Jones, who picked off six passes and earned second-team All-SEC honors. To that mix, Auburn adds the services of Tray Matthews, the former Georgia safety who looked like a star before he was dismissed following off-the-field issues. Now that his transfer year is complete, Matthews will be a physical presence in the back end.

Previewing Auburn’s Specialists for 2015 

Daniel Carlson stepped in as a freshman and instantly extended Auburn’s run of reliable kickers, punching through 75 percent of his field goals in his first season. What he won’t have to do this season is also handle the punting duties; Auburn signed punter Ian Shannon to take the load off of Carlson’s leg. Who will fill big holes in the return game is anybody’s guess; Auburn plans to audition a wide range of players through the spring and summer.

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

Final Analysis 

Some moving parts have to come together for Auburn to once again be a player in the SEC West, but Malzahn’s reputation as an offensive mind and Muschamp’s prowess on defense mean the Tigers are a safe bet to make some noise. With Johnson at the helm, Auburn should be a dangerous passing team, and the combination of talent at both running back and offensive line, plus Malzahn’s history of churning out 1,000-yard rushers, means Johnson should have a solid complement. The pressure, then, falls on Muschamp, who doesn’t have to hold teams to 10 points or less; if he can get the Tigers around 20-24 points against per game, Auburn should be a contender. 

The Debate

Where Does Gus Malzahn Rank Among SEC Coaches?

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Athlon Sports 2015 Big Ten Magazine Cover Gallery

Ranking the Big Ten's Offensive Triplets for 2015

Ohio State leads the Big Ten trio ranks.
Ranking the Big Ten's Offensive Triplets for 2015

The Big Ten is known for possessing some of the nation’s top defenses, but this conference isn’t short on offensive talent for 2015. The Big Ten has three potential first-round picks at quarterback in next year’s draft.

Don't listen to Nick Saban, the Bowl System is just fine

Shockingly, Nick Saban isn't happy about something.
Don't listen to Nick Saban, the Bowl System is just fine

Don’t buy it.


Don’t buy what Bill Hancock is selling. Don’t buy what the conference commissioners are selling.


Certainly, don’t buy what Nick Saban is selling.


The Alabama Crimson Tide head coach has built up more than enough equity during his amazing career to have intelligent and respected opinions about his game.

College Football's Post-Spring National Championship Odds for 2015

The Buckeyes are the favorites to repeat.
College Football's Post-Spring National Title Odds for 2015

Spring practice is over for all 128 college football teams, which means it’s a long wait until the teams officially hit the field once again in the fall.


But there’s no shortage of college football news, as oddsmaker Bovada has released its updated national championship odds for 2015.


And it should be no surprise the Buckeyes open as the favorite at 7/2 odds.



#6 USC Trojans





HEAD COACH: Steve Sarkisian, 9-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Clay Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Justin Wilcox

High expectations are back at USC, as the Trojans return 14 starters from last year’s 9-4 team. Quarterback Cody Kessler headlines an offense that averaged 35.8 points per game in 2014. Kessler is surrounded by one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines and receiving corps. Scoring points won’t be an issue for second-year coach Steve Sarkisian, but the defense must replace standout end Leonard Williams and needs to show improvement after giving up over 400 yards per game in 2014.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing USC’s Offense for 2015 

This could be one of the more explosive offenses in the country. Quarterback Cody Kessler returns from one of the better under-the-radar seasons in recent memory. All he did as a junior was complete 69.7 percent of his passes while throwing for 39 touchdowns and only five interceptions. With the gifted Nelson Agholor gone, Kessler’s new go-to receiver will be JuJu Smith, who was a Freshman All-American a year ago. Then there is Steven Mitchell, the shifty new slot receiver who might have been the MVP of spring practice, as well as Adoree’ Jackson, another Freshman All-American who might be the most exciting two-way player in America. A full-time starter at cornerback, Jackson also will be utilized more as a pass catcher, especially after his breakout game against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

The Trojans will miss Javorius “Buck” Allen and his 1,489 yards rushing at tailback, but they hope to feature Justin Davis, a slashing, breakaway type, and Tre Madden, who likes to rumble between the tackles, as a new complementary pair. Highly regarded freshman Ronald Jones should also work into the mix, along with Soma Vainuku, an intimidating 270-pound fullback who could be the short yardage answer.

The offensive line might be the deepest and strongest unit on the team. Max Tuerk is an All-Pac-12 center. He will be flanked by a pair of Freshman All-Americans in Viane Talamaivao at guard and Toa Lobendahn at tackle. Guard Damien Mama and tackle Zach Banner, a couple of beefy, 350-plus pounders, round out a group that is as active as it is physical.

Previewing USC’s Defense for 2015

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.

You can’t lose the best defensive end in the country and a captain and spiritual leader at linebacker and not feel it. All-American Leonard Williams and leading tackler Hayes Pullard will be difficult to replace, especially for a team that often struggled late in games. But the Trojans are not without their share of talent on defense. The new all-star candidate is Su’a Cravens, who led the team in interceptions (three) and tackles for a loss (17.0) last year as an All-Pac-12 hybrid outside linebacker/safety.

Up front, senior Antwaun Woods will try to set the tone at nose tackle. Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon and Scott Felix, more of an OLB/end hybrid, round out a solid, if unspectacular, group.

The linebackers joining Cravens will be Lamar Dawson, probably USC’s most improved player this spring, and the always aggressive Anthony Sarao.

The secondary is led by the aforementioned Jackson, who is among the country’s finest cover cornerbacks. Kevon Seymour, coming off a fine spring, will start at the other corner. The starting safeties are likely to be the improving John Plattenburg and Leon McQuay III, although true freshman Iman Marshall should quickly work his way into the rotation.

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

Previewing USC’s Specialists for 2015

Solid senior Kris Albarado is in his third year as USC’s punter. But there is a vacancy at placekicker, where newcomers Matt Boermeester and Alex Wood will battle for the job in fall practice. Boermeester will enter with a small advantage.

Final Analysis 

Coming off a 9–4 season that left most Trojans boosters feeling mildly disappointed, coach Steve Sarkisian will face the pressure of huge expectations this fall. The offense should score plenty of points. But it is the defense — which was mauled by the likes of Boston College, Arizona State and UCLA a year ago — that must show significant improvement, and that won’t be easy without the departed Williams and Pullard. With Kessler, Smith, Jackson and Co., spectacular plays should be plentiful. But in the end, this team will go only as far as the defense takes it.

The Debate

Is Cody Kessler the Best Quarterback in the Pac-12?

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#5 TCU Horned Frogs





HEAD COACH: Gary Patterson, 132-45 (14 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Sonny Cumbie, Doug Meacham | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dick Bumpas

TCU just missed out on the college football playoff last season, and the Horned Frogs are poised for another run at the national championship in 2015. Quarterback Trevone Boykin was one of the nation’s most improved players in the nation last year, and there’s no shortage of skill talent in Fort Worth. Defense is coach Gary Patterson’s strong point, but the secondary and linebacking corps are concerns after a few key personnel departures.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing TCU’s Offense for 2015

Trevone Boykin set eight school records last year in his first full season as a quarterback, throwing for 3,901 yards and 33 touchdowns and ranking fourth in the nation in total offense. Imagine him with a year of experience in the “Air Raid” offense installed last season.

He won’t be the only one who can gain from a year of experience. His top receiver, Josh Doctson, set his own single-season school records for yards and touchdown catches. Kolby Listenbee emerged as a stretch-the-field vertical receiver. Deante’ Gray showcased home-run speed out of the slot.

Running back Aaron Green ran for almost 1,000 yards despite not starting until November. Kyle Hicks, a sophomore the Horned Frogs flipped from Texas two years ago, could be primed for heavier action, and former Nebraska four-star running back Shaun Nixon is back from an ACL injury.

Everyone will operate behind an offensive line that returns four starters with 74 starts among them, including third-year starting center Joey Hunt. Right tackle Hala Vaitai will move to the left side, so not all four returners are in the same spots. But the staff believes another offseason of work in the system will yield benefits for everyone.

Previewing TCU’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 Big 12 College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

TCU coach Gary Patterson has a reputation for enjoying defensive rebuilds. Well, he has one on his hands this time with the loss of both his linebackers, including leading tackler and All-America senior Paul Dawson, and the team leader in interceptions, safety Chris Hackett, who surprised him with an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Linebackers get a lot of responsibility in the 4-2-5, so Patterson emphasized athleticism and awareness with early enrollees Mike Freeze and Alec Dunham.

For the secondary, the Horned Frogs are looking for speed and height at Hackett’s spot, and 6'2" senior Kenny Iloka got the first shot. At cornerback, the Frogs will be young with another early enrollee, four-star Louisiana freshman DeShawn Raymond, but incumbent Ranthony Texada started all 13 games as a freshman a year ago. Patterson may hedge his bet at corner with a look at receivers Gray and Cameron Echols-Luper.

Defensive tackle Davion Pierson, whose 31 starts are the most on the team, leads the unit least affected by graduation. Nebraska transfer Aaron Curry has big-game experience but hasn’t played in a year.

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

Previewing TCU’s Specialists for 2015

Placekicker Jaden Oberkrom and punter Ethan Perry both enter their fourth seasons. Oberkrom, who won the pressure-packed West Virginia road game on a last-second kick, is the nation’s active leader with 58 field goals and third in Big 12 history in percentage made over 40 yards. Perry ranked eighth in the nation with 45.3 percent of his punts downed inside the 20. TCU allowed minus-9 yards in punt returns all year. Echols-Luper returned a punt for a TD at Kansas.

Final Analysis

This is a very good team, with experience and playmaking at the offensive skill positions, and a reliable history of defense under Patterson. But the Horned Frogs have their sights set on being more than very good. Last season convinced them they could go undefeated even in the Big 12 and be a CFB Playoff team. But first, the Horned Frogs will have to win on the road. They left Texas only twice last season before the bowl game. This year, it will be five times, including a late-season trip to Norman before the final showdown against Baylor. Performing in hostile environments and managing expectations may be the toughest challenges of all. 

The Debate

Is Gary Patterson the Best Coach in the Big 12?

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#7 Michigan State Spartans



Big Ten East Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Mark Dantonio, 75-31 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Bollman, Dave Warner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Harlon Barnett, Mike Tressel

Mark Dantonio has transformed Michigan State into one of the nation’s top programs in recent years. The Spartans have claimed at least 11 wins in four out of the last five years and finished No. 3 nationally in 2013. Dantonio’s team is poised for another run at the Big Ten title, especially with senior quarterback Connor Cook back under center. But the big question for Michigan State is on defense with a secondary that loses its top two players from last year and lost coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Michigan State’s Offense for 2015

Michigan State has a third-year starter in Connor Cook who’s poised to become the winningest quarterback in school history and set several all-time passing marks this season.  Cook has the advantage of being protected by what’s expected to be the best offensive line of the Mark Dantonio era. Senior All-American Jack Allen brings an ornery presence to center, while left tackle Jack Conklin is a celebrated talent some project to be a future first-round NFL Draft pick.

The extent of the Spartans’ offensive success is a matter of who steps up to replace Big Ten Receiver of the Year Tony Lippett and 1,500-yard rusher Jeremy Langford. The Spartans have plenty of talent at the receiver and running back positions, but it is unproven. Players will need to grow up quickly with a Sept. 12 home game against 2014 national runner-up Oregon looming.

Cook has great accuracy and a strong arm, leading the Big Ten in passing yardage last season, but receivers such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton need to be more consistent, and the Spartans have plenty of room for improvement in gaining yards after the catch. Tight end Josiah Price likely will remain one of Cook’s favorite third-down and red-zone targets.

Tailback is less settled, with the status of Delton Williams up in the air after his indefinite suspension in the spring, and slashers Madre London and Gerald Holmes jockeying for pole position heading into fall camp. Incoming freshman LJ Scott will compete immediately for the starting tailback job regardless of how the depth chart reads entering August.

Previewing Michigan State’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.

The Spartans have finished in the nation’s top 10 in total defense the past four years, and a dominant front four could keep that streak alive. It starts with former Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun at one end, and the quick and powerful Lawrence Thomas shifting from tackle to the other end. Seniors Damon Knox and Joel Heath are at tackle alongside towering Freshman All-American Malik McDowell.

The Spartans return better-than-adequate outside linebackers Ed Davis and Darien Harris, with junior Riley Bullough fast becoming a rising star in the middle.

The question mark on the team is in the secondary, where Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Kurtis Drummond and first-round talent Trae Waynes must be replaced. Athletic sophomore Montae Nicholson seems up to the task of playing alongside veteran RJ Williamson at safety, but the corners are much less certain. Junior Darian Hicks started 10 games last season but must win back his starting job, and redshirt freshman Vayante Copeland and senior Arjen Colquhoun are in close competition. Junior Demetrious Cox has been a safety but is talented enough to play cornerback if needed. The position is shaky enough that true freshmen will be thrown into the mix in fall camp.

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

Previewing Michigan State’s Specialists for 2015

Kicker Michael Geiger is coming off an offseason procedure for a hip pointer. Redshirt freshman Jake Hartbarger has a big leg but is unproven at punter. Macgarrett Kings Jr. is expected to handle punt return duties, while Shelton is a good bet to continue to return kicks after running one back 90 yards for a score against Penn State last season.

Final Analysis

Michigan State has an accomplished quarterback, strong-to-dominant play on both the offensive and defensive lines, and 24 seniors. The Spartans must prove they have elite talent at the other skill positions to attain their goals of winning the Big Ten and making the College Football Playoff. There is great potential but still much to be determined in fall camp.

The Debate

Where Does Mark Dantonio Rank Among Big Ten Coaches?

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