College Football's Pre-Spring Top 25 for 2015

Athlon updates its top 25 with spring practice underway.

The start of college football’s 2015 season is still a few months away, but spring practice is already here for a handful of teams. With each day of spring practice, the picture on every FBS team starts to clear, and the rankings and predictions for 2015 become more refined.

 

While many changes lie ahead as it relates to predictions and rankings for the upcoming season, it’s still never too early to think about them. With that in mind, Athlon Sports is here with its pre-spring top 25 for 2015. 

 

College Football's Pre-Spring Top 25 for 2015

 

1. Ohio State
Returning Starters:
Offense – 7, Defense – 7

It’s tough to go back-to-back as college football’s national champion, but the Buckeyes are in good shape to do so in 2015. Seven starters return on both sides of the ball, including standout defensive end Joey Bosa, linebacker Darron Lee, running back Ezekiel Elliott and three quarterbacks capable of contending for the Heisman Trophy. The biggest question mark in Columbus will be the development of the receiving corps and finding replacements on defense for cornerback Doran Grant and tackle Michael Bennett.

2. TCU
Returning Starters:
Offense – 10, Defense – 5

Gary Patterson’s team just missed the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014, but the Horned Frogs are positioned to be one of the favorites in '15. Quarterback Trevone Boykin headlines an explosive offense, while the defense is reloading this spring with just five returning starters. The secondary and linebacking corps should get the most attention from Patterson in the spring, as standouts Paul Dawson (LB), Kevin White (CB) and safeties Chris Hackett and Sam Carter have departed Fort Worth.

3. Alabama
Returning Starters:
Offense – 2, Defense – 7

Talent certainly isn’t an issue in Tuscaloosa. Alabama has inked the No. 1 signing class in each of the last five years, but coach Nick Saban has plenty of work to do with just nine returning starters. While the defense has a few holes to address in the secondary, the offense is the biggest concern for Saban and coordinator Lane Kiffin. Is Jake Coker ready to assume the quarterback job? And will a receiver emerge to replace Amari Cooper?

4. Baylor
Returning Starters:
Offense – 8, Defense – 9

The Bears have won at least 10 games in three out of the last four seasons. Despite the departure of quarterback Bryce Petty, linebacker Bryce Hager and receiver Antwan Goodley, coach Art Briles’ team will be in the mix for a playoff spot. Whether it’s Seth Russell, Chris Johnson or Jarrett Stidham under center, the offense will be among the best in the nation. And the new starter at quarterback inherits a talented group of skill players and an offensive line that could be the best in the Big 12. Nine starters are back on defense, and this unit features talented playmakers like end Shawn Oakman, linebacker Taylor Young and tackle Andrew Billings.

5. Auburn
Returning Starters:
Offense – 5, Defense – 7

Alabama is a slight favorite to win the SEC West in 2015, but Auburn isn’t far behind. New quarterback Jeremy Johnson should push for All-SEC honors as one of the league’s top breakout players, and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson will be an impact option at running back. The addition of Will Muschamp as coordinator, along with the return of end Carl Lawson will help a defense that allowed 32.8 points per game in SEC contests last year.

6. Michigan State
Returning Starters:
Offense – 6, Defense – 7

Most of the offseason chatter in the Big Ten has focused on Ohio State’s bid to repeat as national champions, and Jim Harbaugh’s return to Michigan as head coach. While those storylines will be popular all offseason, Michigan State quietly goes about its business. The Spartans return 13 starters from a team that suffered its only defeats (two) last season against playoff teams (Oregon and Ohio State). Dantonio may lean on his offense a little more with coordinator Pat Narduzzi leaving to be the head coach at Pittsburgh. Quarterback Connor Cook returns, and four starters headline an offensive line that will be among the best in the Big Ten. End Shilique Calhoun is back for his senior year, but the defense has a few holes to address at linebacker and in the secondary.

7. USC
Returning Starters:
Offense – 7, Defense – 7

Can second-year coach Steve Sarkisian lead USC back into Pac-12 title contention in 2015? The pieces are certainly there for the Trojans to make their first appearance in the conference title game. Quarterback Cody Kessler loses top target Nelson Agholor and running back Buck Allen, but a young offensive line should continue to jell this offseason. USC is counting on its 2015 recruiting class to provide help at the skill positions, including running back Ronald Jones II and junior college recruits Isaac Whitney and De’Quan Hampton at receiver. Finding a replacement for end Leonard Williams and solidifying the secondary are two challenges for coordinator Justin Wilcox this spring.

8. Oregon
Returning Starters:
Offense – 7, Defense – 5

The Ducks are easily one of the most intriguing teams to watch this offseason. Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams is expected to replace Marcus Mariota at quarterback, but he won’t arrive on campus until this summer. While Mariota will certainly be missed, the Ducks can ease Adams into the starting job with a strong supporting cast. Replacing center Hroniss Grasu and left tackle Jake Fisher will be a challenge for coordinator Scott Frost. Oregon’s defense suffered a key loss at each level, but the biggest concern has to be up front after the early departure of end Arik Armstead.

 

9. Georgia
Returning Starters:
Offense – 6, Defense – 6

There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the teams in the SEC East next season. Tennessee and Florida should be better, but the Bulldogs have to begin spring practice as the favorite – almost by default. However, coach Mark Richt’s team certainly isn’t without question marks. There’s a quarterback competition set to begin in spring ball under new play-caller Brian Schottenheimer, and the receiving corps needs playmakers to emerge with the departure of Chris Conley and Michael Bennett. Six starters return from a defense that limited opponents to 24.4 points per game in SEC action last year, and this unit should take another step forward under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt in 2015.

 

10. Florida State
Returning Starters:
Offense – 3, Defense – 7
 

The Seminoles are 27-1 over the last two years, and even though there are some significant personnel issues to address, coach Jimbo Fisher’s team still has enough talent to push for 10 wins in 2015. The battle to replace quarterback Jameis Winston will be the top storyline to watch this offseason, but the defense loses a handful of standouts, including end Mario Edwards Jr., tackle Eddie Goldman and cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby. Sophomore running back Dalvin Cook should be one of the best in college football next year.


11. Clemson
Returning Starters:
Offense – 4, Defense – 2

 

It’s a toss up for the title of early favorite in the ACC Atlantic next season. Much like Florida State, Clemson has personnel concerns to address. However, there’s also a lot of talent returning to Death Valley for 2015. Quarterback Deshaun Watson headlines an explosive offense, which includes receiver Artavis Scott and running back Wayne Gallman. The departure of coordinator Chad Morris will have an impact on the offense, but Watson, Scott and Gallman should keep the unit performing at a high level. Bigger question marks exist on defense, as the Tigers were decimated with heavy departures in the front seven. How quickly can coordinator Brent Venables reload in the trenches?

 

12. Notre Dame

Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 10
 

The Fighting Irish have potential to climb even higher in the post-spring edition of the top 25. With 18 starters returning, a rising star at quarterback in Malik Zaire and better health on defense next year, Notre Dame could easily push for 10 wins in 2015. Zaire still needs to hold off Everett Golson for the starting job, but the sophomore should have the edge under center after a solid performance in the Music City Bowl. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem with four starters back on the offensive line and a talented group of skill players, but the spring focus should be on a defense that allowed 29.2 points per game in 2014. Immediate help for coordinator Brian VanGorder should come in the form of cornerback KeiVarae Russell and end Ishaq Williams, both of whom were suspended in 2014.

 

13. LSU
Returning Starters:
Offense – 7, Defense – 6

If the Tigers develop their passing game this offseason, coach Les Miles' team certainly has the talent to win the SEC West in 2015. The battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris could last into August, but the offense won’t stray too much from its plan of getting the ball to sophomore running back Leonard Fournette. New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele inherits six starters, and a secondary that should be among the best in the SEC. Can new line coach Ed Orgeron find the next standouts at defensive end this spring?

14. Ole Miss
Returning Starters:
Offense – 9, Defense – 7

The Rebels are trending up in coach Hugh Freeze’s fourth season. Over the last three seasons, Ole Miss has averaged a 13.3 finish in the national recruiting rankings. With better talent and roster depth, the Rebels are poised to push higher than last year’s 9-4 mark. Quarterback play will be under the microscope once again in 2015, as junior college recruit Chad Kelly headlines a three-way battle set to unfold in the spring. Regardless of which quarterback starts, the offense will benefit from a healthy Laquon Treadwell at receiver and an improving offensive line. Standout safety Cody Prewitt and cornerback Senquez Golson are the biggest losses for a defense that limited opponents to just 4.7 yards per play in 2014.

15. Georgia Tech
Returning Starters:
Offense – 7, Defense – 7

 

The Yellow Jackets emerged from a wide-open Coastal Division to finish 11-3 and claim the Orange Bowl title last season. Coach Paul Johnson has a few holes to fill this spring, but Georgia Tech should be the favorite in the Coastal in 2015. Quarterback Justin Thomas is back after a standout debut as the full-time starter, and seven starters return from a defense that forced 29 turnovers in 2014. The biggest question mark for Johnson will be finding new rushing options at the A-back and B-back positions.

 

16. Arizona State
Returning Starters:
Offense – 6, Defense – 7

Standout quarterback Taylor Kelly and receiver Jaelen Strong will be missed, but Arizona State still has enough pieces in place to contend in the Pac-12 South next year. New quarterback Mike Bercovici already has three starts under his belt, and the coaching staff hopes moving D.J. Foster to a running back/receiver role will help ease the loss of Strong. Coach Todd Graham likes an aggressive approach on defense, and this unit recorded 39 sacks last season. With nearly all of its key players returning, Arizona State’s defense should be able to cut its points (27.9) and yards per play allowed (5.6) from 2014.

17. UCLA
Returning Starters:
Offense – 10, Defense – 8

Quarterback play will be under the spotlight for coach Jim Mora this spring. Talented true freshman Josh Rosen enrolled in time to compete with Jerry Neuheisel this spring, but the battle may extend into the fall. Outside of replacing quarterback Brett Hundley, the Bruins return largely intact on offense. Running back Paul Perkins is back after a 1,575-yard season, and the line should be improved with the return of five starters. Three key defenders depart, but linebacker Myles Jack, end Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Ishmael Adams are plenty for new coordinator Tom Bradley to build around next season.

18. Arizona
Returning Starters:
Offense – 6, Defense – 5

 

While USC is considered the favorite in the Pac-12 South, very little separates the next tier between UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State. The Wildcats are the defending Pac-12 South champs and should be explosive on offense once again with the return of quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson. Replacing standout offensive tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele, as well as continuing to improve on defense will be the spring storylines to watch in Tucson.

19. Wisconsin
Returning Starters:
Offense – 5, Defense – 7

New coach Paul Chryst inherits a team capable of winning the Big Ten’s West Division in 2015. Sure, running back Melvin Gordon will be missed, but Corey Clement figures to be Wisconsin's next standout ball carrier. This spring, the Badgers need to jumpstart their passing game and replace three key players on the offensive line. The return of coordinator Dave Aranda should keep Wisconsin’s defense near the top of the Big Ten. 

 

20. Missouri
Returning Starters:
Offense – 6, Defense – 6

The Tigers had a rocky start to their SEC experience, but since a 5-7 mark in 2012, coach Gary Pinkel’s team is 23-5 and has claimed back-to-back East Division titles. Pinkel and his staff will have plenty of personnel issues to address this spring, as both sides of the ball have key players to replace. On offense, quarterback Maty Mauk is looking to take the next step in his development, but the top three receivers – Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White – are gone. New defensive coordinator Barry Odom was one of the top assistant hires in the SEC this offseason. Odom has few concerns in the back seven, but the line must replace ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray.    

 

21. Arkansas
Returning Starters:
Offense – 9, Defense – 5

The Razorbacks showed marked improvement in coach Bret Bielema’s second season. After finishing winless in SEC play in 2013, Arkansas won two conference games and lost four others by a touchdown or less. This team should take another step forward in the win column in 2015, especially if quarterback Brandon Allen and the receiving corps develops under new play-caller Dan Enos. And the running back duo of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams will be among the nation’s best. The defense took a step forward under coordinator Robb Smith in the second half of 2014, but defensive end Trey Flowers, tackle Darius Philon and tackle Martrell Spaight will be missed.

22. Texas A&M
Returning Starters:
Offense – 6, Defense – 6

There’s little doubt Texas A&M will field one of the SEC’s best offenses in 2015. Quarterback Kyle Allen will be pushed by talented freshman Kyler Murray, but the Aggies have some of the top skill talent in the conference. But for this program to take the next step, the defense has to improve. That’s exactly what new coordinator John Chavis was brought in to do. Chavis is regarded as one of the top coordinators in college football and inherits a defense that returns rising star Myles Garrett at defensive end, linebacker Otaro Alaka and safety Armani Watts.

 

23. Oklahoma
Returning Starters:
Offense – 5, Defense – 6

Coach Bob Stoops certainly isn’t sitting idle after last year’s 8-5 record. The Sooners made staff changes after the disappointing 2014 season, as Lincoln Riley was hired from East Carolina to call the plays, Kerry Cooks was brought aboard from Notre Dame to coach defensive backs, Dennis Simmons from Washington State to coach outside receivers, and Diron Reynolds arrives from Stanford to work with the defensive line. The revamped staff inherits plenty to work with in terms of personnel, but Riley has the biggest challenge in trying to find an answer at quarterback.

24. Mississippi State

Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 3

 

Dan Mullen has clearly elevated the program, and the Bulldogs should be able to reload at a faster level than in previous years thanks to three top-25 recruiting classes over the last four seasons. Quarterback Dak Prescott’s return was huge for a team that returns just seven starters in 2015. The Bulldogs must replace running back Josh Robinson, three starters on the offensive line, receiver Jameon Lewis and key defenders in Benardrick McKinney (LB), Preston Smith (DE) and P.J. Jones (DT). The SEC West is brutal but having a quarterback like Prescott will help Mullen rebuild in 2015.

 

25. Oklahoma State
Returning Starters:
Offense - 10, Defense - 7

 

Mike Gundy’s team found a spark at the end of the 2014 season with the emergence of quarterback Mason Rudolph. Over the final three games, the true freshman had six touchdown passes and completed 65.4 percent of his attempts in the bowl win over Washington. Rudolph should be in the mix for All-Big 12 honors in 2015, but the Cowboys also need to solidify the offensive line and find a consistent option at running back. The defense returns seven starters, including end Emmanuel Ogbah (11 sacks in 2014), cornerback Kevin Peterson and linebacker Ryan Simmons.

 

Teams to Watch (alphabetical order): Boise State, BYU, Florida, Louisville, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia Tech

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