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Examining the Biggest Concerns for College Football's 2015 Playoff Contenders

Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama Crimson Tide

With fall camps opening across the nation, all 128 college football teams are putting the final stamp on depth chart battles and preparations for the upcoming season. And as is the case every year, all teams in the national title picture have question marks that must be answered in order to win the college football playoff.

Ohio State is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as the national champion, with Alabama, Auburn, TCU, Baylor and USC mentioned in the next group of contenders.

Will any team knock off Ohio State in 2015? And which team will emerge to push the Buckeyes this season? Here’s a look at the biggest title concerns for Athlon’s projected top 15 teams for 2015

Biggest Concerns for National Title Contenders

1. Ohio State: Defensive End

The Buckeyes are loaded with proven talent and depth, so it’s hard to pinpoint one concern that could derail their national title hopes. Repeating as a national champion isn’t easy, and Ohio State’s biggest obstacle could be...Ohio State. The week-to-week pressure of the playoff quest and the challenge to be perfect for 15 games is no easy assignment. But if there’s a specific position to watch in fall camp, it has to be at defensive end where the Buckeyes are searching for a replacement for Steve Miller/Rashad Frazier. Additionally, Joey Bosa is suspended for the opener, leaving Ohio State with two new starters at end against Virginia Tech. How quickly will the Buckeyes sort out their options in the trenches?

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Key Player to Watch: DE Tyquan Lewis/Sam Hubbard/Jalyn Holmes/Jashon Cornell 

Related: College Football's Top 50 Players for 2015

2. Alabama: Wide Receiver/Quarterback

With one of the nation’s top defenses and rushing attacks, Alabama doesn’t necessarily need an explosive passing offense to win the SEC. However, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the offense as fall camp opens. Will Florida State transfer Jake Coker win the quarterback job over redshirt freshman David Cornwell? The growth of the quarterback is something to watch this fall, but a bigger concern for coordinator Lane Kiffin has to be at receiver. Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones have departed Tuscaloosa. That leaves Chris Black (11 catches), Robert Foster (six catches), ArDarius Stewart (12 catches), Oregon State transfer Richard Mullaney and true freshman Calvin Ridley as the top targets at receiver.

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Key Player to Watch: WR Calvin Ridley/QB David Cornwell

Related: College Football's Bowl Projections for 2015

3. Baylor: Secondary

The good news for coordinator Phil Bennett is all four starters in last year’s secondary return in 2015. The bad news? This unit allowed 20 passing scores in Big 12 games and surrendered 28 passing plays of 30 yards or more. With one of the nation’s best defensive lines leading the way up front, the Bears’ secondary may not have to cover for too long. However, after taking their lumps in 2014, Baylor needs its secondary to take a step forward in order to claim a playoff spot in 2015.

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Key Player to Watch: CB Xavien Howard

4. Auburn: Depth in the Secondary

There’s not a glaring concern for coach Gus Malzahn to address this fall. Sure, the receiving corps outside of Duke Williams (assuming he plays in 2015) needs to emerge, and the pass rush has to step up. However, the Tigers are in relatively good shape for a run at the SEC title. The four starting spots in the secondary are expected to go to Jonathan Jones (CB), Tray Matthews (safety), Blake Countess (cornerback) and Johnathan Ford (safety). However, proven depth is a concern, and new coordinator Will Muschamp may have to utilize a couple of true freshmen for major snaps.

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Key Player to Watch: CB Carlton Davis 

5. TCU: Back Seven on Defense

TCU has a strong track record of success on defense under coach Gary Patterson, but this unit enters 2015 as the biggest obstacle to a playoff spot. How quickly will the Horned Frogs find replacements in the back seven? Gone from last year’s standout defense are linebackers Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet, along with defensive backs Kevin White, Sam Carter and Chris Hackett. Cornerback Ranthony Texada and safety Derrick Kindred are two proven pieces for Patterson to build around in 2015.

Key Player to Watch: CB DeShawn Raymond/S Kenny Iloka

Related: College Football's Top 10 Fall Practice Storylines

6. USC: Defensive Line

Is there another Leonard Williams on USC’s defensive line? The cupboard certainly isn’t bare for coordinator Justin Wilcox, but the Trojans may not have a standout performer up front. Williams generated seven sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss last season and was among the nation’s best at defensive end.

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Key Player to Watch: DE Delvon Simmons

7. Michigan State: Secondary

The secondary has been an annual strength in recent years for the Spartans, but this unit enters 2015 as the biggest question mark on defense. Gone are All-Big Ten performers in Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond, leaving junior Darian Hicks and RJ Williamson as new leaders for this group. However, Hicks is out indefinitely with mononucleosis, leaving Arjen Colquhoun, Jermaine Edmondson, Demetrious Cox and Vayante Copeland as the top options at corner. While the concerns at cornerback may take a few games to sort out, the situation is much better at safety. Williamson and rising star Montae Nicholson should be a standout duo.

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Key Player to Watch: CB Vayante Copeland/S Montae Nicholson

8. Oregon: Offensive Line

Even though Oregon will miss quarterback Marcus Mariota, the offense should be in good hands whether Jeff Lockie or Vernon Adams takes the first snap of the year against Eastern Washington. And despite the loss of running back Thomas Tyner, the ground attack is in good shape with Royce Freeman. While there are minor concerns for the Ducks’ high-powered offense in the backfield and the personnel turnover on defense, the biggest issue resides up front on the offensive line after the departure of Hamani Stevens, Hroniss Grasu and Jake Fisher. The return of Tyler Johnstone from a knee injury should solidify the left tackle spot, and Notre Dame transfer Matt Hegarty will bolster the interior.

Key Player to Watch: OL Matt Hegarty/Tyrell Crosby

Related: Oregon Fall Camp Preview and Key Position Battles to Watch

9. Florida State: Defensive Improvement

Quarterback play is going to steal all of the offseason headlines in Tallahassee. However, coach Jimbo Fisher is one of the nation’s top quarterback gurus, and the offense should be in good shape regardless of whether Sean Maguire or Everett Golson takes the first snap. The defense is a bigger concern for Fisher, as the Seminoles finished ninth in the ACC in points allowed and gave up 5.5 yards per play. With the departure of end Mario Edwards Jr., tackle Eddie Goldman and cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby, how much will this unit improve in 2015? The linebacker corps is a major concern with depth and injury issues, while the coaching staff hopes to generate more of a pass rush under new line coach Brad Lawing.

Key Player to Watch: DE Lorenzo Featherston/S Derwin James/LB Reggie Northrup

10. Georgia: Passing Attack

The Bulldogs are set at running back with Nick Chubb entrenched as one of the nation’s best. And the defense should be solid with six returning starters, along with the addition of elite recruit Trent Thompson on the defensive line. However, Georgia’s hopes of winning the SEC and earning a playoff spot hinge on the development of the passing game. There’s a three-way battle at quarterback, with sophomore Brice Ramsey holding an edge over Greyson Lambert and Faton Bauta. At receiver, will the Bulldogs get a healthy year from Malcolm Mitchell? And will a No. 2 and No. 3 target emerge at receiver?

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Key Player to Watch: QB Brice Ramsey/WR Isaiah McKenzie and Terry Godwin

11. Ole Miss: Quarterback Play

Uncertainty at quarterback is a theme among SEC teams for 2015. The Rebels are loaded on defense, but coach Hugh Freeze’s team won’t be able to win the conference and push for a playoff bid without a better output on offense. Last season, Ole Miss averaged 28.3 points per game and scored just 34 points over the final three games. Finding a quarterback is Freeze’s biggest preseason concern, and three candidates – Chad Kelly, Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade – open fall practice with a chance to win the job. Will one quarterback emerge as the clear starter? Or will this battle continue into the season?

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Key Player to Watch: QB Chad Kelly

Related: SEC Quarterback Rankings for 2015

12. Notre Dame: Defensive Line

Injuries and suspensions hit Notre Dame’s defense hard last season, as this unit allowed 29.2 points per game and struggled to stop the run (171.2 yards per game allowed). While last year’s defense took its share of lumps in the second half of 2014, improvement should be noticeable in 2015. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell is back from an academic suspension, and coordinator Brian VanGorder has 10 returning starters to work with in the second year of this scheme. Stopping the run and generating a better pass rush are two critical areas for the Fighting Irish to improve on in 2015. Senior Sheldon Day is among the nation’s top linemen, but Notre Dame needs more from Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara.

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Key Player to Watch: DT Jarron Jones/DE Andrew Trumbetti/DT Jerry Tillery

13. Arizona State: Pass Rusher

The receiving corps is also worth a mention after Jaelen Strong left for the NFL, but the Sun Devils landed graduate transfer Devin Lucien from UCLA and moved D.J. Foster from running back to alleviate some of the concerns on the outside. Coach Todd Graham likes to be aggressive with his blitz packages, and despite the loss of Marcus Hardison (10 sacks) and touted junior college recruit Davon Durant, the pass rush won’t regress too much. However, Graham would like to find a dominant edge rusher, and running back Kalen Ballage is spending some time at the Devilbacker position. Can Ballage or Ismael Murphy-Richardson or another player fill the void?

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Player to Watch: RB/LB Kalen Ballage

14. Clemson: Offensive Line

The Tigers return just two starters on defense, but coordinator Brent Venables should keep the unit performing at a high level. The bigger concern for coach Dabo Swinney has to be with the offensive line. After all, quarterback Deshaun Watson is coming off a torn ACL. The line returns just one starter (center Ryan Norton) and has a combined 29 career starts from the projected lineup.

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Key Player to Watch: LT Mitch Hyatt

Related: ACC's Top Heisman Contenders for 2015

15. LSU: Quarterback

It’s no secret LSU had issues at quarterback last year. The Tigers completed only 50 percent of their throws and managed just seven passing scores in SEC games. The edge in talent goes to sophomore Brandon Harris. However, Anthony Jennings has a better grasp of the offense.

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Key Player to Watch: QB Brandon Harris