#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. 

The Debate

What Grade Does Bob Diaco Get for His Debut Season?

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#106 Tulsa Golden Hurricane



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Philip Montgomery, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Sterlin Gilbert, Matt Mattox | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bill Young, Brian Norwood

Philip Montgomery helped Art Briles engineer one of the nation’s top offenses at Baylor, and the veteran assistant finally gets his chance to run a program, replacing Bill Blankenship after a 2-10 record in 2014. The Golden Hurricane should have an explosive offense, but the defense gave up 39.3 points per game last year.

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Previewing Tulsa’s Offense for 2015 

Philip Montgomery has long been an admirer of Tulsa football. The former Baylor offensive coordinator knew about the school’s recent history of conference championships and bowl triumphs. So when the university approached him to be a head coach who could revitalize both an offense and a fanbase, he was anxious for the challenge.

“There’s a ton of positive energy around this campus and the community,” says Montgomery, who inherits a program with only five wins over the past two seasons. “They’ve won conference championships here. They’ve won a lot of games, and we want to help get them back to that level.”

Points are necessary in the high-scoring American Athletic Conference, and at Tulsa, everything will focus on the quarterback. Junior Dane Evans and true freshman Chad President, an early enrollee, spent the spring learning Montgomery’s system. Evans ranked second in the American in passing yards per game (258.5) in 2014. President, a former Baylor commit, ran a similar offense during a prolific high school career.

“We put a lot of pressure on our quarterback … those guys have to have a great understanding of what we do,” Montgomery says.

The quarterback will have weapons at running back and wide receiver. Senior Zack Langer was second in the conference in rushing yards (80.1 ypg). The passing attack will welcome back wide receiver Keevan Lucas, a junior who had 101 receptions, 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Senior Keyarris Garrett (47 catches, 698 yards, five touchdowns) will be a key target as well.

“We have good core depth,” Montgomery says. “We just need to put them in position to make plays and be successful in what we do.”

Previewing Tulsa’s Defense for 2015

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Veteran coach Bill Young — Tulsa’s new defensive co-coordinator — has plenty of work to do. He inherits a unit that ranked 114th in the nation in total defense (486.8 ypg) and 119th in scoring defense (39.3 ppg). The Golden Hurricane allowed fewer than 30 points only once last season, in a 38–28 win over SMU.

There may be no quick fixes, but Young has a foundation upon which to build. The defensive line returns All-AAC second-team end Derrick Alexander, who had a team-high 12 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks last year, and tackle Derrick Luetjen, who has started 24 straight games.

Linebacker Craig Suits was an FWAA Freshman All-American with 81 tackles, and he’ll be joined by Trent Martin, a junior who had eight tackles for a loss in only nine games last season.

The secondary is anchored by leading tackler Michael Mudoh, a hard-hitting safety with 113 stops last season.

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

Previewing Tulsa’s Specialists for 2015 

Punter Dalton Parks averaged 42 yards per boot last season. From that point, all jobs will be open. Preston Soper and Redford Jones are getting the first looks at kicker. D’Angelo Brewer has experience with kickoff returns, and Conner Floyd took back punts, but Montgomery indicates that many different players will be looked at to contribute at the spot.

Final Analysis 

Montgomery’s hiring will bring a much-needed boost to the Tulsa football program, which turned stagnant after winning the 2012 Conference USA championship. The offense should profit from the new system, which will get the football into the hands of many different playmakers. The Hurricane’s most important fix will be on defense. Stopping teams may once again be difficult for Tulsa, which will place the emphasis on the offense to score points. Patience will be important — for both the coaching staff and fans — during 2015’s rebuilding season. 

The Debate

What Grade Does Tulsa Get for Hiring Philip Montgomery?

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#104 Tulane Green Wave



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Curtis Johnson, 12-25 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eric Price | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jason Rollins, Lionel Washington

Tulane heads into Curtis Johnson’s fourth year looking to rebound after a 3-9 record in 2014. The Green Wave has 13 returning starters and a promising core of talent to build around, but the offense is looking for a spark after struggling last season.

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Previewing Tulane’s Offense for 2015

Strong-armed sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee is the clear starter but will need to improve significantly after a rough redshirt freshman debut season in which Tulane struggled across the board offensively. The Green Wave ranked 107th in total offense and 121st in points, failing to score more than 14 in eight of their last nine games.

Lee was part of the problem, tossing more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12). He threw for 262 yards and three scores in a 38–31 loss to Tulsa in the opener but cooled down quickly as defenses confused him and his freshman-laden receiving corps.

Almost all of Lee’s top targets are sophomores who learned on the job as true freshmen. Wide receiver Teddy Veal led the Green Wave with 40 catches for 381 yards. Tight ends Charles Jones and Trey Scott figured heavily in the offense during spring practice.

The running game, which ranked 91st nationally, should be a strength if it receives better blocking from a line that returns four starters. The three-headed backfield of speedy Sherman Badie (688 yards, 5.7 per carry), power runner Lazedrick Thompson (533 yards, four touchdowns) and well-rounded Dontrell Hilliard is one of the best in the American Athletic Conference. Badie broke off three runs of more than 70 yards.

Previewing Tulane’s Defense for 2015 

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With several key starters returning, Tulane should be closer to its form from 2013 (when it ranked 22nd nationally in yards allowed) than last season (when it dipped to 55th). The key will be replacing safety Sam Scofield, who led the team in tackles the past two years, and cornerback Lorenzo Doss, who declared for the draft after picking off 15 passes in three seasons.

The talent is there. Darion Monroe, a four-star recruit in 2012, returns for his fourth year as a starter at safety. Sophomore cornerback Parry Nickerson outplayed Doss last season, making 51 tackles with a team-high six interceptions.

Diminutive linebacker Nico Marley (5'9", 200), the Conference USA Co-Freshman of the Year in 2013, had no letdown as a sophomore, registering a team-best 13.5 tackles for a loss. He galvanizes everyone around him to play harder.

The Wave are solid at tackle, where junior All-AAC candidate Tanzel Smart (47 stops) and sophomore Sean Wilson are entering their second year as a tandem. End is a concern. Royce LaFrance has all-conference ability but was up and down as a junior before missing spring practice for academic reasons. 

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

Previewing Tulane’s Specialists for 2015 

The kicking game was a debacle last year, and correcting those woes is priority No. 1 for new special teams coach Doug Lichtenberger. First, he has to find a reliable kicker after the Wave missed half of their 16 field goals. Walk-on Trevor Simms has unlimited range but questionable accuracy. Sophomore Andrew DiRocco missed a potential game-winning 21-yarder in the opener and never recovered. Incoming freshman Zach Block is rated more highly as a punter than placekicker. Badie could boost a kickoff return unit that ranked second-to-last nationally. Punter Peter Picerelli is coming off a poor year (37.8-yard average). 

Final Analysis 

The pieces are in place for an uptick in coach Curtis Johnson’s fourth season, but everything needs to go right after Tulane struggled with the move from Conference USA to the stronger AAC. Lee needs to mature quickly and get a better rapport with his young receivers. The running backs, whom Johnson considers NFL-caliber, need better blocking. The defense needs to apply more pressure on quarterbacks after having just 22 sacks last year. And, maybe most significantly, the Wave have to shore up their kicking game. The struggles there sapped confidence from the entire team. 


#102 SMU Mustangs



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Chad Morris, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joe Craddock | DEF. COORDINATOR: Van Malone

Chad Morris was one of the offseason’s top hires, but the first-year coach has plenty of work ahead in 2015. SMU returns only 11 starters and will be implementing new schemes on both sides of the ball after a 1-11 finish in 2014. The Mustangs will be better, and the future looks bright with Morris at the helm.

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Previewing SMU’s Offense for 2015 

Coach Chad Morris is confident that junior Matt Davis can operate his smash-mouth spread offense. After all, Morris recruited the dual-threat quarterback who signed with Texas A&M out of high school, while he was Clemson’s offensive coordinator.

Davis managed to stimulate a lifeless offense last year. Taking over the starting job the last six games, he finished the season as the team’s top rusher. His passing skills should improve in the new scheme, which employs two running backs and a tight end and relies more on runs between the tackles and vertical passes. The quick tempo of this no-huddle formation can keep defenses guessing when operated properly. With redshirt freshman Daniel Gresham, sophomore Darius Durall, senior K.C. Nlemchi and junior Prescott Line at running back, Morris has a variety of skills from which to choose.

SMU did not use a tight end in June Jones’ run-and-shoot, but Jeremiah Gaines (6'2", 240) has the size and hands to step in. The receiving corps, led by senior returning starter Darius Joseph (54 catches for 379 yards), needs more consistent play from Nate Halverson, Cedric Lancaster, Deion Sanders Jr. and Ryheem Malone. Freshmen Kevin Thomas and Xavier Castille could also make an impact.

Previewing SMU’s Defense for 2015

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Under new defensive coordinator Van Malone, who coached defensive backs at Oklahoma State, the Mustangs have switched to a 4-2-5 scheme. This should allow SMU to emphasize speed on the edge and in the secondary while avoiding physical mismatches up front.

Malone hopes a more aggressive approach will put players in position to create turnovers. The Mustangs ranked 120th nationally with a minus-14 turnover margin last year.

Shakiel Randolph, who has the look of an NFL cornerback at 6'4", 216 pounds, should be a good fit in the new Star hybrid role. He played safety one year, switched to cornerback because of injuries last season and has added significant muscle. Jonathan Yenga, fourth in tackles last season, has 15.5 tackles for a loss the last two years.

Zach Wood, who had a team-high four sacks last year, will anchor the line. Mason Gentry (6'6", 292) has the size to be a force. The development of Elie Nabushosi, Zelt Minor and Spencer Hollie should produce a more consistent attack by committee with Andrew McCleneghen, Cameron Smith and Nick Reed. True freshman Chris Biggurs is the top newcomer.

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

Previewing SMU’s Specialists for 2015 

Sanders Jr., second-team all-conference as a kick returner last season, set school records for single-game return yards (203) and returns (10). As a senior in high school, kicker Josh Williams hit a 71-yard field goal during practice. Range shouldn’t be an issue.

Final Analysis 

Bringing an up-tempo pace to all facets of SMU football, Morris seems the ideal candidate to rebuild the program from the ashes of 1–11. And things may not be quite as dire for the Mustangs as they appeared last season. “It was a tough deal with the interim coach coming in at mid-year and they weren’t winning,” says one AAC assistant. “I thought they were probably better than their record indicated; it was just a bad situation.”

That situation has certainly improved with the high-profile hire of Morris. Having spent 16 years as a Texas high school coach, Morris has used his ties to repair recruiting relationships with coaches in the state, particularly in Dallas-Forth Worth. The turnaround may take some time, but Morris has SMU fans thinking big again.


#90 Appalachian State Mountaineers





HEAD COACH: Scott Satterfield, 11-13 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dwayne Ledford, Frank Ponce | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nate Woody

Coming off of a seven-win season, Appalachian State is now finally eligible to enjoy the full benefits of being a FBS member. That could mean a bowl bid and possible Sun Belt championship for the Mountaineers, as Scott Satterfield's team returns 10 starters on each side of the ball. Plenty of experience and a favorable home schedule should produce six wins, if not more, in 2015.

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Previewing Appalachian State’s Offense for 2015

Six games into last season, Appalachian State had one win and loads of excuses. The Mountaineers were in their first season on the FBS level, and with freshmen or sophomores filling 14 of the 22 spots in the starting lineup, there was youth everywhere. If the season had gone off the rails, it would have been easy to pinpoint why. But it didn’t. Appalachian State closed the year winning six straight, thanks in large part to an offensive renaissance built around a sturdy running game. In the final six games, the Mountaineers’ rushing average jumped by 99 yards per game.

Four of the five offensive linemen who powered that improvement return, led by senior center Jesse Chapman. The guards are Parker Collins and Colby Gossett, and right tackle Beau Nunn is also back. Davante Harris, who started the first five games a year ago, is penciled in at left tackle.

After rushing for 1,415 yards and earning a spot on the All-Sun Belt second team, running back Marcus Cox is back as well. According to coach Scott Satterfield, the junior won’t have to shoulder as much of the load, as sophomore Terrence Upshaw and freshmen Jalin Moore and Josh Boyd are ready to contribute.

Sophomore quarterback Taylor Lamb, son of longtime Furman coach and current Mercer head man Bobby Lamb, will continue to pilot the offense after breaking the freshman passing record held by Mountaineers great Armanti Edwards. His top four receiving targets from last season are all back, meaning the offense that blossomed late last season should be able to keep its momentum going.

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

Previewing Appalachian State’s Defense for 2015

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With 10 starters back, Appalachian State’s defense should be up for whatever the Sun Belt throws at it.

Satterfield expects senior defensive end Ronald Blair — who racked up six sacks as a junior — to be the next Mountaineer to reach the NFL. The three-year starter leads a defensive front that’s long on experience.

Junior linebacker John Law led the team in tackles last season. He’ll be surrounded by proven talents such as inside linebacker Eric Boggs and outside linebackers Devan Stringer and Kennan Gilchrist.

Senior defensive back Doug Middleton picked off a team-high four passes last year and will anchor an experienced secondary. Corner Brandon Pinckney is a new starter, but Satterfield says he has full faith in the sophomore.

Previewing Appalachian State’s Specialists for 2015

After averaging 40.7 yards per punt, junior Bentlee Critcher has a firm grip on a starting spot. Senior Zach Matics is expected to once again handle the kicking duties. Satterfield expects seniors Bobo Beathard and Simms McElfresh to join sophomore Isaiah Lewis on return duties.

Final Analysis

The transition from FCS powerhouse to Sun Belt newcomer was likely a jarring one for Mountaineers fans who fondly recall the heady days of winning national titles and authoring an all-time great upset at Michigan. But this season should provide them with a pleasant taste of their new normal.

By finishing third in the Sun Belt last season, the Mountaineers showed they could compete. With loads of experience back and plenty of confidence banked from last year’s strong finish, there’s no reason to believe this season can’t be even better.

Throw in the fact that the Mountaineers could now earn a bowl invite — they were barred from it last season — and have a schedule that features home games against league heavyweights UL-Lafayette, Arkansas State and longtime Southern Conference rival Georgia Southern, and life on the FBS level should begin to feel just right.


#89 Rice Owls





HEAD COACH: David Bailiff, 48-53 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Larry Edmondson, Billy Lynch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Thurmond

Rice is enjoying its most successful three-year stretch in program history, highlighted by a 2013 Conference USA championship. David Bailiff's 2015 team will be looking to replicate's last year's eight wins, but to do so the Owls will need to rely on a large batch of new starters, especially on defense.

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Previewing Rice’s Offense for 2015

Fifth-year senior quarterback Driphus Jackson continues to build confidence after throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first season as the Owls’ starter. The dual-threat Jackson sat out most of the spring following offseason surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder but is expected to be ready for the start of fall camp.

At running back, Rice has arguably the best 1-2 combo in Conference USA in Jowan Davis, who came within 44 yards of his first 1,000-yard season, and Darik Dillard, who had 11 rushing touchdowns. The Owls present challenges with the ability to show multiple looks out of the backfield, particularly with former high school quarterback Luke Turner in the team’s Wild Owl package.

Dennis Parks, a physical receiver, is the top returner along with Zach Wright, who saw extensive playing time due to injuries. The other candidates — James Mayden, Temi Alaka and Cameron Decell — had a combined 13 catches a year ago. The biggest loss on offense was Jordan Taylor, who finished as the No. 2 receiver in school history (total yards and touchdown receptions).

Four-year starter Caleb Williams returns at right tackle, and Andrew Reue, a three-year starter, is projected at left guard. Redshirt freshman Calvin Anderson is the frontrunner to start at left tackle, although the Owls have some flexibility with Reue able to play all five positions on the offensive line.

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

Previewing Rice’s Defense for 2015

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A defensive line expected to be one of the best in C-USA suffered major losses in the offseason. First, Christian Covington, despite missing most of 2014 with a knee injury, opted to skip his final year and enter the NFL Draft. Then All-C-USA first-teamer Brian Nordstrom, who had 7.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss, quit football to take a six-figure job in the oil and gas industry. Those moves left the Owls scrambling to fill holes this spring. Nose tackle Ross Winship is the only returning regular. Stuart Mouchantaf is expected to be healthy after missing most of the past two seasons with a knee injury, while Graysen Schantz and Brian Womac have the inside track for starting jobs at defensive end.

There’s strength at linebacker, led by Alex Lyons, who led the team in tackles and was an All-C-USA selection, and Nick Elder.

The Owls have made strides in pass coverage in recent years under veteran defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond, who seems to get the most out of talent. He’ll be faced with a huge challenge with four new starters in the secondary. The lone holdover is Ryan Pollard at cornerback. V.J. Banks, who played as a true freshman, is a candidate to play opposite Pollard. 

Previewing Rice’s Specialists for 2015

The most pressing special teams concern is finding more consistency on field goals and extra points. The Owls used a scholarship on kicker Jack Fox, rated the No. 15 high school kicker in the nation, and will give him a chance to win the job in fall camp. Punter James Farrimond has emerged as a difference maker, averaging 42 yards to earn a spot on the Ray Guy Award watch list last season.  

Final Analysis

Rice has come a long way since the days of being “everybody’s homecoming game,” head coach David Bailiff says. The best three-year stretch in school history has produced three straight bowl appearances (two wins), 25 victories and a 2013 C-USA title. Construction began this offseason on a $31.5 million end-zone training facility, and there are talks about a much-needed facelift for Rice Stadium. With so many questions — and a tough opening month — it might be asking too much to come close to the win totals from the last three seasons, but the Owls should be in position for another bowl trip. 


#88 MTSU Blue Raiders





HEAD COACH: Rick Stockstill, 57-55 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Buster Faulkner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tyrone Nix

Middle Tennessee won enough games to be bowl-eligible last season, but the Blue Raiders didn't get an invite. Rick Stockstill's team returns 13 starters, but a tough schedule including a date with Alabama makes MTSU's path back to the postseason a difficult one.

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Previewing MTSU’s Offense for 2015

Middle Tennessee’s quarterback competition is a two-man race that might go well into the season. Returning starter Austin Grammer, a dual-threat performer, accounted for 2,999 yards of total offense and 23 TDs last season. But he had some turnover issues in key games, and the passing game rarely stretched the field. Redshirt freshman Brent Stockstill, son of head coach Rick Stockstill, may be a better passer, but Grammer is a better runner. It’s likely that game action will determine the starter. “We’ve got to move the ball and pass it better,” Rick Stockstill says. “In the last four or five games last year, our passing game struggled and people loaded the box on us. So whoever is out there has to pass the ball down the field. But I am in no hurry to make a decision.”

The air attack faces an uphill battle. Ed Batties is a proven pass catcher, but he needs help from other wideouts. Passing game aside, the Blue Raiders return some key components of a strong ground attack. Jordan Parker, Shane Tucker and Jeremiah Bryson have combined for 3,638 rushing yards and 39 total TDs in their careers, and freshman power back J’Vonte Herrod may also enter the fray. Plus, three starting offensive linemen are back.

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

Previewing MTSU’s Defense for 2015

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

The key cogs return in two senior standouts. Safety Kevin Byard’s 15 career interceptions stand only two shy of MTSU’s all-time record. Byard (246 tackles) and linebacker T.T. Barber (234) are both within reach of the team’s career mark in tackles (344).

They head a defense returning seven starters, but most of that personnel is better suited to stop the run than the pass. The top four defensive tackles return to clog gaps in the middle, but an every-down pass rusher is desperately needed. Juniors Steven Rhodes and Chris Hale showed some promise in that role in the spring, but junior college transfer Peter Bailey was signed specifically to bring pressure.

“I think defensive end is such a big area because we haven’t had that guy who can get to the quarterback on any down in a few years,” Stockstill says. “Adding that will be critical for what we need to do defensively.”

Depth is also needed at cornerback. Jared Singletary is solid, but the other starter and backups are concerns, especially for a secondary burned by big plays too often in 2014.

Previewing MTSU’s Specialists for 2015

Placekicker and punter are big concerns. Cody Clark is back, but he missed his last four field goals in 2014 and looked shaky in spring practice. He will compete for placekicking duties with freshman Matt Bonadies, who arrives as the frontrunner at punter. Record-breaking return man Reggie Whatley graduated, leaving a big-play vacancy. Batties, Bryson, Singletary and others will try to fill the void.

Final Analysis

MTSU has been bowl-eligible in five of the past six seasons, and the 2015 squad has enough talent and experience to add to that total. But the schedule doesn’t do the Blue Raiders any favors. Two weeks after a trip to Alabama, MTSU begins a three-game stretch against Illinois, Vanderbilt and high-powered rival Western Kentucky. The senior-laden squad could be Stockstill’s best in a few years, but the record might not show it.

“We’ve got some tough road games; it’s not just our out-of-conference games,” Stockstill says. “Western Kentucky could be favored to win the East, and we go there. Louisiana Tech could be favored to win the West, and we go there. But for us to contend (in Conference USA), we have got to stay healthy through those first five games so we can play well down the stretch in our conference.”


#87 UL Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns





HEAD COACH: Mark Hudspeth, 36-16 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jay Johnson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Charlie Harbison, Melvin Smith

In each of Mark Hudspeth's four seasons, UL Lafayette has gone 9-4 and finished the year playing in the New Orleans Bowl. This year's Ragin' Cajuns could keep each of these streaks alive, but to do so it will need to rely on new starters at key positions, including quarterback, as well as a new defensive coaching staff.

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Previewing UL Lafayette’s Offense for 2015

Certainly the Ragin’ Cajuns’ offense wasn’t prolific a year ago. It finished 10th in the Sun Belt in passing offense, fourth in rushing offense and sixth in total offense. But it was efficient, finishing No. 1 in the league in red-zone offense. This season, with the departures of quarterback Terrance Broadway, leading receiver James Butler and bruising running back Alonza Harris, Louisiana-Lafayette will ask another player to lead the way — running back Elijah McGuire, the 2014 Sun Belt Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year.

McGuire won’t have to share the ball with Harris, and he’s expected to continue to catch passes out of the backfield after he was second on the team in receiving yards last season. He’s even going to be the punt returner. While he shared the spotlight a year ago, the Cajuns’ offense will be geared toward getting him the ball as often as possible this year.

Yet if the Cajuns are to excel offensively, others must step forward, especially at quarterback. Three players who appeared in just six games combined last season — juniors Brooks Haack and Jalen Nixon and redshirt freshman Jordan Davis — will battle to replace Broadway. There is talent at wide receiver in Al Riles, Jamal Robinson and C.J. Bates. And while the offensive line is looking for two new starters, All-Sun Belt candidates Mykhael Quave and Grant Horst return. 

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

Previewing UL Lafayette’s Defense for 2015

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This unit will have a different look. That’s because there are some new faces on the defensive staff, led by co-defensive coordinators Charlie Harbison (outside linebackers) and Melvin Smith (defensive backs), both of whom make their way to Lafayette from Auburn. They bring along Levorn Harbin to coach the defensive line, and the trio has helped instill a different mindset and approach on that side of the football, one that showed signs of improvement in spring drills.

The defense didn’t dominate the Sun Belt stats, but it placed well in areas that mattered such as second in scoring defense and No. 1 in red-zone defense. The Cajuns allowed 405.8 yards per game, including a league-worst 263.6 passing yards, and improving those numbers has been a point of emphasis.

The Cajuns are loaded at linebacker with Dominique Tovell, Tre’maine Lightfoot and Otha Peters. The problem area is on the defensive line, where standouts Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton have moved on. Chris Prater and Miami transfer Jacoby Briscoe will be expected to step forward there. The secondary, also missing some key players from a year ago, will lean on Troy McCollum and T.J. Worthy.

Previewing UL Lafayette’s Specialists for 2015

The return game will have experience, with McGuire expected to be used on punt returns and Montrel Carter back on kickoff returns. The concern from an experience standpoint is with the kicking duties. Dylan Scheurich and Stevie Artigue will battle for the placekicking job in preseason camp. At punter, Australian Steven Coutts caught the attention of coach Mark Hudspeth in spring drills, and the job appears to be his.

Final Analysis

This is a program that has thrived under Hudspeth’s leadership, and the Cajuns are expected to continue to enjoy success again this year. They have posted four consecutive 9–4 records and four straight New Orleans Bowl appearances. While competition will be strong, Lafayette is expected to contend for the Sun Belt title once again. There is concern based on inexperience at a couple of key positions, most notably quarterback and on the defensive line, but there is also a confidence among those in the program based on recent success.


#83 Air Force Falcons





HEAD COACH: Troy Calhoun, 59-44 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Clay Hendrix | DEF. COORDINATOR: Steve Russ

Air Force soared to a somewhat surprising 10 wins last season, including a victory over Western Michigan in the Idaho Potato Bowl. Winning is nothing new for the Falcons under Troy Calhoun, and the offense should once again be productive thanks to one of the nation's top rushing attacks. The key to this season, however, is the other side of the ball, where just four starters return from a defense that was among the best in the Mountain West in 2014.

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Previewing Air Force’s Offense for 2015

For the first time since 2012, there’s no drama at quarterback. Nate Romine spent almost all of 2014 as a spectator after starting in 2013, but he delivered a huge splash in his one meaningful appearance, leading the Falcons to victory over nationally ranked Colorado State. Romine is the rare Falcons quarterback who’s a better passer than runner, but he understands how to operate the complex triple-option, run-first attack.

The Falcons are deep at fullback with D.J. Johnson and Shayne Davern, both big, brutish and surprisingly elusive. Runs up the middle will be common, and coaches are trying to find ways to place both fullbacks on the field.

Jacobi Owens broke the 1,000-yard mark before suffering a season-ending injury to his right foot, but he often showed an unfortunate knack for turning an 8-yard gain into a 5-yard gain. He needs to show more imagination and daring this season. Owens will lead a deep, if underwhelming, set of tailbacks.

Romine’s set of receivers is so athletic it creates confusion. Why did wide receivers Jalen Robinette, Garrett Brown and tight end Garrett Griffin choose to play at Run University? Robinette, a high school quarterback, averaged 19 yards per catch last season while still learning his position. He’s a dominating blocker and could become the Mountain West’s most dangerous receiver.

The line was depleted by graduation, but expect superb and consistent blocking. Line coach Clay Hendrix is one of the nation’s top assistants, and he’s an expert at replacing lost parts. Tackle Matt Rochell and guard Andrew Ruechel will anchor the line.

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

Previewing Air Force’s Defense for 2015

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The Falcons vaulted from two wins in 2013 to 10 wins in 2014 largely because of hustling, surprisingly violent defenders. Air Force allowed 40 points per game in 2013 but cut the number to 24.2 in 2014. Seven starters are gone, including linebacker Jordan Pierce, a clutch, big-hit specialist.

Alex Hansen is an undersized yet ferocious defensive end who plays with the same wisdom and fire as Ben Garland, the former cadet who now plays for the Denver Broncos. Hansen will need all his experience to escape constant double teams.

The Healy brothers, Patrick and Connor, lead a depleted group of linebackers. Dexter Walker, a converted defensive back, will play outside linebacker at just over 200 pounds. He personifies the team’s profile. The Falcons are always undersized.

Strong safety Weston Steelhammer is fast, a ballhawk and capable of knockout hits, but he’s surrounded by question marks. The suspension of cornerback Gavin McHenry is a severe blow. He is expected to miss at least half the season.

Previewing Air Force’s Specialists for 2015

Placekicking was a catastrophe in spring practice. Drew Oehrle is the leading candidate to replace Will Conant, one of the nation’s most accurate kickers, but a freshman could emerge as the starter. Brett Dunn leads the field of punters.

Final Analysis

The Falcons averaged 31.5 points per game in 2014. That number could jump to near 40 this season. The fullbacks and receivers are at historical strength, and if opposing defensive coordinators stack against the run, Romine owns the arm power and accuracy to torch defensive backs.

But can the defense keep opposing offenses in check? The Falcons win, and win big, when their undersized defenders consistently keep opponents under 25 points per game.

Expect the Falcons to rush to a winning record, which would be the seventh in nine seasons under coach Troy Calhoun, but the youthful defense must quickly jell for the Falcons to again flirt with 10 wins.


#82 Wake Forest Demon Deacons





HEAD COACH: Dave Clawson, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Warren Ruggiero | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Elko

Not surprisingly, Dave Clawson's first season at Wake Forest experienced more downs than ups. The good news is that 13 starters return from last season's 3-9 team. The bad news is that the Demon Deacons will once again be one of the youngest teams in FBS and this offense was not just the worst in the ACC, it ranked near the bottom of all of FBS in 2014. Wake Forest appears to be in good hands with Clawson at the helm, but success is probably still at least one more season away.

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Previewing Wake Forest’s Offense for 2015

With a freshman quarterback and an overmatched offensive line, Wake Forest’s offense was historically bad. The Deacons allowed 48 sacks, the most in the country, and 37 percent of their runs went for a loss or no gain. Overall, Wake Forest’s 3.4 yards per play ranked last in the nation — by a wide margin.

Second-year coach Dave Clawson sees the offensive line improving, despite losing two starters and inserting three redshirt freshmen, and more playmakers arriving in the latest recruiting class. “The offensive line was the root of our problems a year ago and that will be a reason for our improvement next year,” he says.

Quarterback John Wolford took a beating and improved: He threw only four interceptions in the final seven games. But Wolford struggled to get passes downfield (only two of 35-plus yards in ACC play). Freshmen Kendall Hinton and Kyle Kearns will compete for the job.

Dez Wortham and Isaiah Robinson return in the backfield, but neither broke a run longer than 20 yards nor provided a pass-catching threat. So Clawson likely will look to highly rated recruits Rocky Reid (originally a Tennessee commit) and Matt Colburn (originally a Louisville commit).

Wake Forest’s receivers have struggled to hold on to the ball lately, but Clawson is encouraged by the return of Tyree Harris, who redshirted in 2014 after showing promise as a true freshman, and the impact of new faces. Speedy freshman Tabari Hines enrolled early and will take over in the slot. He was a spring standout, along with redshirt freshman Cortez Lewis. Wolford built a connection with tight end Cam Serigne, who led the Deacons in all receiving categories in 2014. 

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

Previewing Wake Forest’s Defense for 2015

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The defense pulled off a miracle to finish in the middle of the ACC, and the veteran unit will have to lead the way again. The Deacons should be better up front and have one of the ACC’s best units at linebacker, but cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel and their 84 starts are gone.

The defensive line proved it could speed rush, with Wendell Dunn and Josh Banks combining for 15 tackles for a loss with three forced fumbles and an interception. But Clawson wasn’t as happy with the unit’s ability to control the line. Tylor Harris will need to stand out in the middle.

At linebacker, senior Brandon Chubb and junior Marquel Lee combined for 210 tackles last season. They’re teamed with senior Hunter Williams and backed by a strong group of young players. “That position is the one position right now that we look like an ACC team,” Clawson says.

The replacements for Johnson and Noel missed spring practice, and while Brad Watson (wrist) will return, Bryant Gross-Armien (ACL) is more questionable. Top recruit Dionte Austin could see playing time. Starting safeties Ryan Janvion and Thomas Brown are solid, but they’re backed by two redshirt freshmen.

Previewing Wake Forest’s Specialists for 2015

If you have a struggling offense, it helps to have a good punter, and the Deacons have one of the nation’s best in Alex Kinal. Mike Weaver opened his career with 10 straight field-goal makes and finished his first season 15-of-19. Wake’s returners haven’t produced big plays in years.

Final Analysis

Clawson, coming off two straight bowl games at Bowling Green, walked into a disaster. The Deacons will be one of the nation’s youngest teams again, and the offense could feature eight underclassmen as starters. They have a difficult schedule and are likely a year away from being truly competitive, but Clawson’s recruiting classes have been historically good, giving hope that he can transform the program.