#99 South Florida Bulls



American Athletic PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Willie Taggart, 6-18 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Willie Taggart | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Allen

South Florida has yet to enjoy much success in the American Athletic Conference under Willie Taggart. The third-year coach will try and snap the Bulls' postseason drought in 2015, but only has eight returning starters to help him to accomplish this. South Florida also will have new coordinators in place on both sides of the ball in what could be a make-or-break season for its head coach.

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Previewing South Florida’s Offense for 2015

After struggling for two seasons under Willie Taggart’s smash-mouth style, the South Florida Bulls have changed to an up-tempo attack, heavy on spread principles and getting their skill players open in space. But who will run the show? After the transfer of drop-back quarterback Mike White, sophomore Quinton Flowers seems the best candidate because of his quick feet, improved accuracy and quick thinking. Senior Steven Bench could figure into the equation, but he has been mistake-prone.

Consistency would be welcomed. Taggart has used five different starting quarterbacks in two seasons.

The quarterback’s biggest job will be to get the ball to running back Marlon Mack, the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year in 2014. Mack galloped to 1,041 yards and nine TDs, including a program-record 275 yards in his debut. Mack is an electrifying open-field runner, but he’s more impressive in displaying patience to read his blocks and aggressiveness in hitting the hole.

Opportunities abound at wide receiver, where junior Rodney Adams has the most experience and sophomore Ryeshene Bronson displays the most potential. Meanwhile, it’s the last chance for senior tight end Sean Price, a former four-star recruit who has fallen short of his potential due to injuries and inconsistency.

There are spots to fill along the offensive line, especially at center as three-year starter Austin Reiter has departed. The rapid-fire offensive pace will also be an adjustment for the guys up front.

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

Previewing South Florida’s Defense for 2015

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After South Florida’s defense plunged to a No. 69 national ranking and twice allowed 589 yards in a game, there’s a new look with former Ole Miss linebackers coach Tom Allen taking over as coordinator. Allen has implemented a 4-2-5 formation, transforming a linebacker into a hybrid position and creating better chances to counter spread offenses.

The Bulls have playmakers in junior linebacker Nigel Harris, who led the nation in forced fumbles per game, and senior linebacker Tashon Whitehurst, who had a monster spring game (19 tackles), along with a steady leader in sophomore linebacker Auggie Sanchez. Big things are expected from redshirt freshman linebacker Jimmy Bayes.

Defensive backs are prevalent. Allen likes the aggressiveness of senior safety Jamie Byrd and the improvement of sophomore cornerback Tajee Fullwood, while sophomore cornerback Devin Abraham could be a future star.

The Bulls desperately need a better pass rush up front. Senior Eric Lee is the most experienced defensive end, while highly recruited big men junior Derrick Calloway and sophomore Deadrin Senat are expected to man the interior.

Previewing South Florida’s Specialists for 2015

The Bulls have one of the nation’s top punters in senior Mattias Ciabatti, who averaged a school-record 44.4 yards with 18 kicks of 50-plus yards and 22 downed inside the 20. Sophomore Emilio Nadelman will get first look at placekicker and must replace reliable Marvin Kloss, who was a Lou Groza Award finalist in 2013.

Final Analysis  

It has the look of a produce-or-else season for Taggart, who is 6–18 with the Bulls and must avoid the program’s fifth straight season without a bowl appearance. Taggart fired three assistant coaches immediately after last season, including both coordinators. He changed the offensive style of play, shocking observers who said Taggart was too stubborn.

Mack is a wonderful weapon. There are some building blocks on defense. But the schedule is formidable, and the Bulls must make a big jump to reach the postseason. The offense may be picking up the pace, but Taggart is running out of time.


#98 Ohio Bobcats





HEAD COACH: Frank Solich, 72-56 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Albin, Scott Isphording | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jimmy Burrow

Ohio won six games last season, but the Bobcats weren't always competitive in 2014. This season should be different, however as Frank Solich welcomes back starters from last year's team that experienced its share of growing pains. Bowl eligibility should be one of the goals for 2015, as Ohio is poised to be a factor in the MAC East race once again.

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Previewing Ohio’s Offense for 2015

The Bobcats should be much more proficient this fall as nearly every piece of their 2014 offense returns.

Senior Derrius Vick should be the starting quarterback. Because of injury, Vick split last season with junior JD Sprague. Vick had the better numbers and should get the official nod in fall camp. Both are aggressive runners, critical in Ohio’s one-back offense.

Up front, Ohio returns all five starters from last season and its top seven linemen overall. A strong left side — with seniors in left tackle Mike McQueen, left guard Mike Lucas and center Lucas Powell — will serve as an anchor. Ohio at times played four true freshmen last season. One, Jake Pruehs, started every game at right guard but is being groomed to be the center of the future.

Running back A.J. Ouellette had the second-highest rushing total for a freshman in Ohio history last season (785 yards) and begins this fall as the clear-cut No. 1 option. He averaged 126 yards in his final three games, highlighted by a 155-yard, two-touchdown performance in a win against Buffalo. Senior Daz Patterson and redshirt freshman Papi White are change-of-pace backs who can double in the slot. Sophomore Dorian Brown and redshirt freshman Maleek Irons will push Ouellette in camp, with Irons a threat to get red-zone touches.

The one spot where Ohio needs more development is at wide receiver. None of the Bobcats’ returning receivers posted big numbers, but juniors Sebastian Smith and Jordan Reid have the size and experience to emerge.

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

Previewing Ohio’s Defense for 2015

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If Ohio can find suitable replacements in a couple of key areas, the Bobcats could have a nasty defense. The biggest question marks are in the middle, where defensive tackles Cam McLeod and Antwan Crutcher held up well at the point of attack last year. Seniors Brandon Purdum and Watson Tautuiaki and junior Casey Sayles — who will play at end — will have to fill that void. On the edge, junior Tarell Basham was underwhelming last season as he saw a steady diet of double-teams, but he remains one of the best pass rushers in the MAC.

Ohio has solid options at linebacker, cornerback and safety. Senior Jovon Johnson and junior Blair Brown are two speedy playmakers at outside linebacker, and Quentin Poling was sensational last year as a redshirt freshman in the middle.

Ohio returns three corners who started games last fall. Senior Ian Wells might be the Bobcats’ best pro prospect on one side, while Brett Layton eventually supplanted Devin Bass on the other side last season. They don’t have that kind of depth at safety, however. Senior Devin Jones returns, but injuries — three potential starters at safety all missed spring camp — leave the position a bit thin. Sophomore Kylan Nelson, a former corner, has moved to free safety, and three of Ohio’s 2015 recruits are expected to get a shot at playing time.

Previewing Ohio’s Specialists for 2015

Josiah Yazdani is back for his third season at kicker and has developed into a dependable weapon. Last season, he won two games with field goals on the last play of regulation. There’s also no question that Mitch Bonnstetter will be the punter again. Bonnstetter’s average was pedestrian, but his quick release helped after punt blocks were a major issue in 2013.

Final Analysis

Coming off a 6–6 season in which the Bobcats were blown out several times, Ohio should rebound nicely in 2015. With experienced depth across the board, an aggressive, quick defense, and an emerging star in Ouellette, the Bobcats won’t be learning on the fly like they were in 2014. Ohio will be a factor in the MAC East, and a bump in wins and a bowl berth should be the expectation.


#97 Akron Zips





HEAD COACH: Terry Bowden, 11-25 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: A.J. Milwee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Amato

After consecutive 5-7 showings, Akron needs to show signs of improvement in Terry Bowden's fourth season at the school. With an experienced quarterback leading the way on offense and several key transfers getting on the field, the Zips could be in position to make some noise in the MAC East this season.

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Previewing Akron’s Offense for 2015


Senior quarterback Kyle Pohl is a two-year starter with no guarantees of earning a third year at the helm. Pohl’s inconsistency was one of the reasons Akron went 5–7 in 2013 and ’14. Over those two seasons, he completed 55 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. In 2014, Akron was last in the MAC and 118th nationally in passing efficiency. This fall, if Akron is to have its first winning record since 2005, improved play from the quarterback is a priority. If Pohl struggles, coach Terry Bowden could use athletic sophomore Tra’Von Chapman (a former Pitt signee) or 2014 backup Tommy Woodson.

The Zips have a hole to fill at running back after the departure of Jawon Chisholm, the team’s leading rusher in four consecutive seasons. However, Chisholm never reached the 1,000-yard mark, and his replacements may be an upgrade. Colorado State transfer Donnell Alexander, an inside power runner, and Conor Hundley, an instinctive slasher, could provide a chain-moving 1-2 punch. Manny Morgan and Hakeem Lawrence also could contribute.

The receiving corps in recent years has been high on potential and low on productivity. The two top pass catchers are gone, and coordinator A.J. Milwee is looking for the likes of Austin Wolf, Mykel Traylor-Bennett, Imani Davis, Andrew Pratt and Fransohn Bickley to emerge as reliable and consistent threats.

Bowden and his staff have worked hard to build up the depth and quality of the line, and it paid off in 2014. Three starters from that group return, and the feeling is that Akron will be able to use more wrinkles on offense because of the line’s experience.

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

Previewing Akron’s Defense for 2015

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Akron returns six starters and many reserves and welcomes several key transfers to a defense that was second in the MAC in yards allowed per game (371.1) and first in points allowed per game (23.1). The anchors of the defense are nose guard Cody Grice and linebacker Jatavis Brown, both of whom were first-team All-MAC in 2014. Grice, who also was used as a short-yardage fullback, had 31 tackles last season. Brown led the Zips in both tackles (99) and tackles for a loss (14.5).

The defensive front also includes Se’Von Pittman, a former Ohio State Buckeye who had 36 tackles last season. Two other transfers, tackle Rodney Coe (Iowa State) and end Jamal Marcus (Ohio State), could start.

At linebacker, the two positions opposite Brown are unsettled because of the loss of Justin March and C.J. Mizell, who were second and third in tackles, respectively. Washington State transfer Darryl Monroe is being counted on to help.

The secondary is in a state of flux with the loss of the two starting safeties and their backups. The hope is that highly touted sophomore Jerome Lane — the son of former Pittsburgh basketball star “Send it in Jerome” Lane — will continue his growth at strong safety and starting cornerback Bryce Cheek can make the transition to free safety. Miami transfer Larry Hope and returning starter DeAndre Scott, who led the team in pass breakups in 2014, are ahead of the competition at cornerback. 

Previewing Akron’s Specialists for 2015


The Zips feature two of the best specialists in the conference in seniors Zach Paul and Robert Stein. Paul was a second-team All-MAC punter after averaging 42.5 yards per kick. Stein connected on 13-of-16 field goals.

Final Analysis

The third year of the Bowden era was a major disappointment as the Zips finished with a second straight 5–7 record. Led by some key returnees and a host of talented transfers, Akron should take a step forward in 2015 and contend in the MAC East Division. Anything short of a winning record will be considered a disappointment. 


#96 New Mexico Lobos





HEAD COACH: Bob Davie, 11-26 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bob DeBesse | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Cosgrove

A favorable schedule could help New Mexico get to six wins and a possible bowl invite. The key for the Lobos is whether the offense can continue to pile up the rushing yards and if the defense can get a little stinger when it comes to points allowed. If everything comes together, Bob Davie's team could go bowling for the first time since 2007.

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Previewing New Mexico’s Offense for 2015  

When there are questions at quarterback, it seldom bodes well. For New Mexico, however, the consequences of not having a locked-in starter might not be as damaging as for most teams, thanks to a rushing attack that averaged over 300 yards per game last season. Four offensive linemen with starting experience return, as does 1,000-yard rusher Jhurell Pressley.

The challenge for coach Bob Davie is to complement the option-oriented attack from the Pistol formation with a passing game that can be counted on. Lamar Jordan started the final four games of 2014 and played in seven others, and his ability to run (612 yards, 5.1 yards per carry) is superior to his ability to throw (53 percent completions, six TDs, five INTs). Still, Davie likes Jordan’s competitiveness, which showed itself in the two fourth-quarter road comebacks he engineered.

Jordan’s competition is Austin Apodaca, a junior college transfer who originally signed with Washington State. Apodaca is a pure passer who has never run much. At Mesa Community College in 2014, he threw for more yards (2,534) and touchdowns (27) than New Mexico has in the past two seasons combined. The hope is that one of the two quarterbacks gives an untested receiving corps more opportunity to shine and gives the offense a chance to stretch the field and convert more on third down.

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Previewing New Mexico’s Defense for 2015 

In an effort to aid a pass defense that was ranked 92nd in the nation last season, New Mexico is switching to a 3-3-5 base formation. The fifth defensive back, or “Lobo,” will be manned by either Ricky Bennett (who saw action in all 11 games as a backup in 2014) or Lee Crosby (who redshirted after a two-year stint in junior college). Both are physical defensive backs who should be able to provide ample run support.

Corners Cranston Jones and Jadon Boatwright both have starting experience, and Isaiah Brown has shown flashes. Safety Markel Byrd is a returning starter but is behind Ryan Santos on the depth chart. The defense’s best player, linebacker Dakota Cox, is hoping to be ready for the season-opener after tearing his ACL in November. Cox led the nation in tackles per game (12.9) as a sophomore before his injury. Returning starters Kimmie Carson and Donnie White will fill out the other two linebacker spots as New Mexico goes from starting four to three.

The defensive line welcomes back some experience. End Nik D’Avanzo is the top player on the line, while William Udeh and Cole Juarez form a strong nose tackle combo.

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

Previewing New Mexico’s Specialists for 2015  

Kickoff returns have been a specialty for New Mexico since Davie took over. The Lobos have returned seven for scores in the last three years, including two last season. Speedy Ridge Jones and Carlos Wiggins figure to man those duties. Zack Rogers handled punting (42.6-yard average) and field goal duties (5-for-8) last season. Kickoff specialist Jason Sanders appears ready to take over field-goal duties, which would allow Rogers to focus on punting.

Final Analysis
New Mexico faces five teams that won four or fewer games last season, plus FCS member Mississippi Valley State, so getting to six wins is not an impossible task. Should Apodaca adjust to the running portion of the offense and create a legitimate passing attack, New Mexico is going to score enough to win some games.

Defensively, the team gave up more than 28 points per game against unranked opponents, a number that simply has to come down. A bowl game is the ceiling for this year’s team, but it is a ceiling that at least appears to be reachable for the first time in the Davie era.


#95 Wyoming Cowboys





HEAD COACH: Craig Bohl, 4-8 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brent Vigen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Steve Stanard

For the first time in five seasons, a Craig Bohl-coached team did not finish with a winning record. Now with a year under his belt at Wyoming and in FBS, Bohl will try to improve upon the four wins the Cowboys picked up in 2014. Familiarity with the coaching staff and playbook should help, but Wyoming returns just nine starters and is probably at least one more season away from earning bowl eligibility, let alone being a legitimate threat in the Mountain West.

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Previewing Wyoming’s Offense for 2015  

There should be more familiarity on offense as coach Craig Bohl enters his second season, but there will be a new quarterback. Senior Cameron Coffman was named the starter after the Cowboys’ first scrimmage of spring drills. The Indiana transfer completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 2,734 yards with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a sophomore with the Hoosiers in 2012 but played in only three games as a junior.

Wyoming may have the top running back duo in the Mountain West in senior Shaun Wick and sophomore Brian Hill. Wick missed most of four games, but the pair combined for 1,549 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. The Cowboys also use fullbacks, and the top two are sophomore Drew Van Maanen and junior Jordan Ellis.

Juniors Tanner Gentry and Jake Maulhardt are the Cowboys’ leading returning receivers. The duo combined for 53 catches for 709 yards and three touchdowns in 2014. Wyoming needs more depth, and that will have to come from players who are new to the college game. Junior Jacob Hollister, a former quarterback, led all tight ends last season with 17 catches for 244 yards and two touchdowns.

Three starting offensive linemen return, led by junior guard Chase Roullier, an honorable mention All-Mountain West pick last season.

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Previewing Wyoming’s Defense for 2015 

The front four looks to be the strength of a unit that allowed 32.8 points and 430.8 yards per game last season. Senior defensive end Eddie Yarbrough was a first-team All-MW selection after leading the way with 10.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks. Senior Siaosi Hala’api’api mans the other defensive end spot, and juniors Uso Olive and Chase Appleby figure to be the top two guys inside.

Bohl says Wyoming is “almost starting at ground zero” at linebacker. Junior Lucas Wacha is the only experienced player on the roster. The younger brother of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha has 140 tackles in the last two years. Wacha could play in the middle or outside but is undersized at about 220 pounds. Senior Malkaam Muhammad dislocated his elbow last season and missed most of spring with an injured shoulder. Others in the mix are playing the position for the first time. Former safeties Will Tutein and Tim Kamana both figure to play outside. Junior Eric Nzeocha was moved from tight end and could play in the middle, as could senior walk-on Devin McKenna.

The secondary also has plenty of uncertainty. Senior cornerback Tyran Finley led the team with only two interceptions, both in the same game. Sophomore Robert Priester likely will be the other starting corner despite undergoing offseason knee surgery. The two safety spots will be manned by new faces. Redshirt freshmen Chavez Pownell Jr. and Adam Pilapil (a walk-on) had good springs. Senior Chad Reese, who returned after a year away, and former running back D.J. May are also in the mix.

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

Previewing Wyoming’s Specialists for 2015  

Junior punter Ethan Wood enters his third season on the job and averaged 41.4 yards last season. Who will handle the kicking duties is uncertain. Junior Justin Martin is in the mix, and true freshman walk-on Tristan Bailey should compete for the job in fall camp. Wick, Hill, May and Priester all will compete to be Wyoming’s kickoff and punt returners.

Final Analysis

Wyoming is still a work in progress after switching offensive and defensive philosophies when Bohl was hired. More development should occur this season with a more manageable schedule, but the Cowboys are still a couple of years away from being serious contenders in the Mountain West. 


#94 Ball State Cardinals





HEAD COACH: Pete Lembo, 30-20 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joey Lynch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Kelly

Ball State returns 17 starters from last season's team that finished strong, winning four of its final six games. The Cardinals hope to be a factor in the MAC West again, but will have to do so without its top playmaker from a year ago. Pete Lembo will rely on a veteran offensive line and improving defense as Ball State looks to get back to a bowl game this season.

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Previewing Ball State’s Offense for 2015


For the second year in a row, Ball State must adjust after losing one of its all-time great skill-position players. While the Cardinals struggled last season to find a successor for quarterback Keith Wenning, they’re in a better position this fall to handle the graduation of tailback Jahwan Edwards (4,558 career rushing yards, 51 TDs).

Coach Pete Lembo believes the tag team of bulked-up junior Teddy Williamson, scatback sophomore Darian Green and prized freshman James Gilbert will handle the load, even though they’ve combined for 328 yards and one touchdown to date. “We’ve got a veteran offensive line and tight ends,” Lembo says. “We expect our running backs to step in and be productive.”

Not only do the Cardinals welcome back all of their starting linemen and top three tight ends, they also retain the two quarterbacks who split last season and all of their wide receivers. Sophomore Jack Milas began last season as junior Ozzie Mann’s backup, but the coaches decided to make a change at quarterback after Ball State’s 1–4 start. Milas jumped in and threw for 326 yards and four scores in his first start. But he endured some growing pains, as well as literal pain when he broke his wrist in Week 11. Mann led the Cards to a season-ending win at Bowling Green, but Milas keeps the starting job. He has two All-MAC receivers in Jordan Williams (second team) and KeVonn Mabon (third team), but don’t be surprised if sophomores Corey Lacanaria and Jordan Hogue produce just as much.

Center Jacob Richard, a third-team all-league pick the last two seasons, spearheads a line that boasts 101 career starts.

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

Previewing Ball State’s Defense for 2015

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During league play last season, Ball State’s defense ranked among the MAC’s bottom four in all the major categories. While the Cardinals dealt with some extenuating circumstances — free safety Dae’Shaun Hurley tore his ACL in Week 1, third-team All-MAC cornerback Eric Patterson went out for the year in Week 9 — it’s fair to say injuries weren’t the sole cause of their relative ineffectiveness.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Lembo says. “We started off pretty solid. Once the injuries started piling up, it really took its toll on us. A lot of guys were thrown in ahead of their time.”

Ball State welcomes back seven starters, including all but one member of the front seven. The Cardinals managed just 16 sacks last year, so they’re looking for more from senior defensive tackle Darnell Smith (4.0 sacks) and senior rush end Michael Ayers (2.0 sacks).

Senior weak-side linebacker Ben Ingle was a second-team all-league pick in 2013 but produced 29 fewer tackles last fall and received no honors. He and junior middle linebacker Zack Ryan have the capability to deliver more. Hurley’s solid rehab suggests he’ll be ready at free safety, while sophomore Dedrick Cromartie, who stepped up after the injuries, shifts to strong safety.

“The key here is to build more depth and more cohesiveness,” Lembo says.

Previewing Ball State’s Specialists for 2015


MAC Special Teams Player of the Year Scott Secor has graduated, leaving true freshman Morgan Hagee and junior walk-on Alex Egan battling to be the kicker. Junior punter Kyle Schmidt posted a 41.5-yard average in his first two years.

Final Analysis


Blessed with 17 returning starters from a group that won four of its final six games, Ball State ought to be able to shrug off last year’s step back and be a factor in the tough MAC West. The key is how Milas grows into the starting quarterback role. “I’m not going to say he has arrived by any means,” Lembo says, “but he’s more comfortable out there.”


#93 Texas State Bobcats





HEAD COACH: Dennis Franchione, 36-34 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Conway, Mike Schultz | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Thompson

Despite picking up seven wins, Texas State did not receive a bowl invite last season. The Bobcats could be in the same position in 2015, as Dennis Franchione welcomes back 12 starters, including his key playmakers on offense. If the offense can carry the team early and the defense finds it footing, Texas State could force its way into the bowl conversation this season.

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Previewing Texas State’s Offense for 2015

A year removed from one of the biggest changes Texas State head coach Dennis Franchione has made during his second stint in San Marcos, the Bobcats are in a much better position on offense. Texas State’s switch to an up-tempo attack last season paid dividends for the Bobcats, who improved in most statistical categories. Texas State averaged 77 plays per game last season (up from 64 in 2013), racked up 33.8 points per game (23.9 in 2013) and amassed 464.3 yards of total offense per game (326.3 in 2013). “The balance we had was great,” Franchione says. “I felt like the plan we devised in the offseason was a good one. The numbers seem to bear that out.”

With junior quarterback Tyler Jones and senior tailback Robert Lowe back in the fold, Texas State could be poised to take another leap on offense. What could hold the Bobcats back this season, however, are some unknowns, especially at wide receiver.

Senior slot receiver C.J. Best turned in a breakthrough campaign last season, but Texas State needs more from wideouts Brandon Smith, Demun Mercer and Jafus Gaines to become an elite offense in the Sun Belt. 

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

Previewing Texas State’s Defense for 2015

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The Bobcats experienced just as much upheaval — if not more — on this side of the ball last season as John Thompson brought a new scheme to Franchione’s team. While this season will mark Year 2 under Thompson, Texas State experienced plenty of turnover in the offseason: Thompson lost his four best defenders, including linebacker David Mayo, who was named the Sun Belt’s Defensive Player of the Year.

If the Bobcats are going to find a groove, it will likely come down to the front seven. Texas State has targeted its defensive line as an area it must strengthen to compete against the likes of Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and UL Lafayette. With that in mind, the Bobcats will look for the emergence of sophomore Jeff Banks and junior Roosevelt Pearson as edge rushers and senior Mershad Dillon as a run stopper in the middle.

Even so, Texas State could be in line for an uphill battle on defense, especially early in the season, as Thompson tries to find the right mix of players. The Bobcats have to find someone to replace Mayo, which figures to be a difficult task when you consider that the linebacker had a monster season despite not having a consistent running mate alongside him to provide support. 

Previewing Texas State’s Specialists for 2015

A stellar campaign from kicker/punter Will Johnson notwithstanding, special teams were a mess for Texas State last season. And with Johnson out of the mix (he exhausted his eligibility), the Bobcats will head into this season with a bevy of unanswered questions when it comes to special teams. Texas State inked James Sherman before last season and added Lumi Kaba in its most recent recruiting class. At the moment, it appears that Sherman will take over punting duties, while Kaba will be the Bobcats’ placekicker. Look for this unit to be a work in progress. 

Final Analysis 

Texas State has been knocking on the door for a bowl game during the past two seasons. In fact, the Bobcats were the only 7–5 bowl-eligible team not to receive a postseason invite last season. To secure its first bowl berth in program history, Texas State will likely ask its offense to carry the torch early in the hope that its defense will flourish toward the end of the season. The Bobcats have a favorable home schedule but must face league powers Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and UL Lafayette on the road. If Texas State can sweep its home slate and steal one or two games on the road, Franchione’s team should finally bust down the bowl door.


#92 UMass Minutemen





HEAD COACH: Mark Whipple, 52-35 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mark Whipple | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Masella

With just five wins in three seasons on the FBS level, could this be the year UMass takes a big step forward? The Minutemen return 18 starters, as Mark Whipple's team hopes to secure the program's first bowl appearance since 1972.

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Previewing UMass’ Offense for 2015


Before coach Mark Whipple and quarterback Blake Frohnapfel arrived, the Minutemen had the 12th-ranked passing attack in the MAC in 2013. The arrival of the coach-quarterback tandem elevated the Minutemen to the No. 1 passing offense in the conference. Frohnapfel, a transfer from Marshall, led the league with 334.5 passing yards per game. He threw 23 touchdowns with 10 interceptions before missing the last two games with a broken leg.

Frohnapfel is healthy again for his senior season and will lead an offense that loses tight end Jean Sifrin but not much else. Rodney Mills moves from H-back, where he was a reliable receiving threat, to take over for Sifrin at tight end. Senior wideout Tajae Sharpe, who caught 85 passes for 1,281 yards and seven touchdowns, figures to be one of the MAC’s top receivers again.

Running back is the biggest offensive question for the Minutemen. They return four backs who started at least one game last year, but nobody could stay healthy or consistent enough to hold onto the job. Shadrach Abrokwah, who worked his way from walk-on freshman in 2013 to starter a year ago, will likely get first crack at the job. He rushed for 578 yards on 122 carries in eight games. Jamal Wilson, who was UMass’ No. 1 back before tearing up his knee in September, will certainly be in the mix as well.

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

Previewing UMass’ Defense for 2015

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UMass returns nine of 11 starters from a unit whose statistics were slightly tainted by the amount of time it spent on the field.

Jovan Santos-Knox, who was second in the MAC with 11.9 tackles per game last year, takes over middle linebacker responsibilities from Stanley Andre, who graduated. The return of Shane Huber, who missed all of 2014 with a knee injury, should help defray the impact of Andre’s departure at inside linebacker.

UMass struggled to get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks last year. It’s hoped that outside linebackers Kassan Messiah and Trey Seals can add to last season’s 5.5 combined sacks.

All-conference cornerback Randall Jette leads a secondary that needs to cut down on big plays allowed. Trey Dudley-Giles, who moved between safety and corner last season, should be at corner full time, while UAB transfer Kelton Brackett will likely get a chance to make an immediate impact.

The Minutemen’s inexperience and smallish stature on the defensive line was exposed at times last year when they played against bigger, more veteran offensive lines. They’ll get bigger with 307-pound Robert Kitching taking over at nose tackle. UMass is counting on junior Peter Angeh and sophomore Sha-Ki Holines to improve with a year of added experience under their belts.

Previewing UMass’ Specialists for 2015


UMass tried three placekickers over the course of 2014, and none of them earned any trust. True freshman Michael Caggiano, a high school record-setter in New Jersey, will get every chance to win the job. Logan Laurent takes over at punter hoping to improve on the Minutemen’s struggles there. UMass was 12th in the MAC in punting average (37.1).

Final Analysis


UMass won just one game in each of its first two FBS seasons. Last year it jumped up to three wins and nearly had more as a play or two might have changed the results of several games. With most of last year’s team returning, the Minutemen have a chance to take a significant step forward. It’s a critical year for UMass, which is leaving the MAC after the season for an undetermined stretch as an Independent. It’s hoped that a strong year capped by UMass’ first bowl appearance since 1972 might pique the interest of a conference willing to offer permanent membership.


#91 Nevada Wolf Pack





HEAD COACH: Brian Polian , 11-14 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Nick Rolovich | DEF. COORDINATOR: Scott Boone

Nevada returned to the postseason in Brian Polian's second season at the helm. Now the challenge for the Wolf Pack will be to maintain that same level of success with uncertainty at quarterback, along the offensive line and at wide receiver. Can the defense, which returns five starters in the front seven, carry Nevada back to a bowl game?

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Previewing Nevada’s Offense for 2015  

With three primary starters in 11 years, Nevada has had uncommon stability at quarterback. Who’s next? Well, that remains an open question.

Junior Tyler Stewart is the modest favorite in a three-way competition to start the season. Stewart is the only quarterback with college game experience on the Nevada roster, completing 21-of-37 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns in his career. But Stewart lacks the mobility that has become the calling card of Nevada quarterbacks in the Pistol offense.

He could cede the position to either sophomore Danté Mayes, who has plenty of mobility and impressed during spring workouts, or redshirt freshman Hunter Fralick. Fralick was a prized local recruit last year, and the dual-threat might have the highest upside of the three.

Even with Cody Fajardo, the passing game struggled at times last year, averaging 99 yards per game during a 1–2 finish. Part of that can be attributed to the loss of Hasaan Henderson, a big-bodied receiver whose season ended with a scary head and spinal concussion. But the all-conference candidate is healthy and appears ready to lead a receiving unit that has just three upperclassmen.

Don Jackson, who amassed 957 yards and seven scores on 216 carries, and sophomore James Butler, who ran for 635 yards and five scores on 140 carries, should take pressure off the passing game. But they’ll need holes from a front that is a work in progress. Two starters return from an offensive line that was inconsistent last year, and questions remain at center and right tackle.

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Previewing Nevada’s Defense for 2015 

The front seven is a clear strength with five starters returning. The Pack essentially have four starting linebackers at three spots with Jordan Dobrich, Matthew Lyons and Bryan Lane all returning. Faigofie Faaituala steps in as the fourth backer, but Nevada will need to fill the leadership void from the departed starter Jon McNeal.

On the line, senior end Ian Seau (nephew of late NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau) had a breakout season in 2014, leading the team in sacks (8.5) and tackles for a loss (10.5). Lenny Jones will anchor the other end of the line, and fellow senior Rykeem Yates is among the best tackles in the league. The team is high on redshirt freshmen Malik Reed and Korey Rush, who will get some time along with emerging sophomore Patrick Choudja.

Nevada will need that front seven to produce a steady pass rush because the secondary is very young and inexperienced. All four starting spots will be up for grabs in fall camp. Kendall Johnson played at corner as a true freshman last year and has moved inside to safety this season, with redshirt freshman Asauni Rufus and sophomore Teré Calloway battling for time. Junior Randy Uzoma had a strong spring and appears ready to ascend to a starting spot at corner, and redshirt freshman Elijah Moody could lock down the other spot.

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

Previewing Nevada’s Specialists for 2015  

The kicking game should be stable with junior placekicker Brent Zuzo (14-of-18 field goals) and junior punter Alex Boy (44.3 yards per punt) returning. Junior Elijah Mitchell should be the primary kick returner after averaging 24.8 yards per return. The speedy Mitchell is one of the favorites to handle punt returns along with junior wideout Jerico Richardson.

Final Analysis

With questions at quarterback, offensive line and receiver, Nevada will rely on its improving defense. Still, there will be bumps.

San Diego State is the favorite in the West Division, but Nevada isn’t far behind. A favorable home conference slate should help Nevada land a bowl game for the 10th time in 11 years.


#109 UConn Huskies



American Athletic East PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Bob Diaco, 2-10 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Frank Verducci | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vincent Brown, Anthony Poindexter

Bob Diaco enters his second season at UConn looking for answers after a 2-10 record in 2014. The Huskies need to find a spark on offense after averaging just 15.5 points per game last year. The strength of the team will be a defense with seven returning starters, featuring one of the top linebacking corps in the American Athletic Conference.

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Previewing UConn’s Offense for 2015

Coach Bob Diaco shifted his entire offensive staff with every coach moving to a different position after the unit was among the least productive in FBS last year, averaging a lowly 15.5 points per game. The Huskies also brought in veteran coach Frank Verducci as offensive coordinator to help develop a physical and ball-control running game.

The quarterback position rests with sophomore Bryant Shirreffs, who has the inside track over junior Tim Boyle after a strong spring. Shirreffs, who sat out last season as a transfer from NC State, is a dual-threat quarterback who has shown excellent running ability and impressed the staff with his arm on deep throws. Boyle remains in the hunt, though the junior struggled after being named the starter late last season and has thrown only one touchdown with 11 career interceptions. True freshman Tyler Davis, who enrolled in the spring, and junior college transfer Garrett Anderson will also be in the mix.

The other skill positions are in better shape. Sophomore running back Ron Johnson will be the featured back after leading the team in rushing a year ago with 429 yards and averaging 3.8 yards per carry. Fellow sophomore Arkeel Newsome is an explosive talent who will be used in the screen game and is capable of making plays in space. 

The top two wide receivers from last season must be replaced, but there is a budding star in junior Noel Thomas, an explosive downfield threat. He finished the year with 305 yards on 26 catches with four touchdowns. Sophomore Thomas Lucas is a physical receiver who has shown an ability to create separation. Dhameer Bradley remains a dangerous slot receiver.

There is reason for hope for a line that struggled last season for the nation’s 123rd-ranked offense. Mammoth 6'8", 310-pound junior Andreas Knappe and fellow junior Richard Levy return as bookend tackles. 

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Previewing UConn’s Defense for 2015 

The Huskies return seven starters on defense, including their top four tacklers. There is experience and production at all levels as UConn enters its second year in the 3-4 alignment favored by Diaco. The defense is led by senior linebackers Marquise Vann and Graham Stewart. Vann led the team with 105 tackles, while Stewart had 94 tackles and led the Huskies with 10.5 tackles for a loss.

The secondary is strong. Andrew Adams returns at free safety after securing 96 tackles and four interceptions, and he’s joined by the physically gifted Obi Melinfonwu at strong safety. The corners — junior Jhavon Williams and sophomore Jamar Summers — are talented cover guys. Summers stepped in last season after an injury to NFL-bound Byron Jones.

The defensive line returns its top player in senior nose tackle Julian Campenni. Sophomore defensive end Folorunso Fatukasi is a player on the rise.

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

Previewing UConn’s Specialists for 2015

Junior Bobby Puyol returns at kicker after making 9-of-14 field goals, but he will be pushed by strong-legged freshman Michael Tarbutt. Justin Wain had an excellent first season as the punter with a 38.8-yard average and 17 punts inside the 20.

Final Analysis 

Coming off a 2–10 season in Diaco’s first year — the worst in their 11-year history in the FBS — the Huskies should be better across the board. The Huskies have not made a bowl game in four years and possess a difficult non-conference schedule with games at BYU and Missouri and conference road games at UCF and Cincinnati. The defense should be very solid, but the Huskies will have to dramatically improve on offense to even be in contention for a bowl bid late in the season. 

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