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2015 College Football Preview: SEC West

Nick Saban has brought Alabama back to prominence and the Tide are always a Championship Contender with him at the helm. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images North America)
Nick Saban has brought Alabama back to prominence and the Tide are always a Championship Contender with him at the helm. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: SEC West

We have reached our final preview in the 2015 College Football Preview series here at Sports Enthusiasts. The SEC West, along with the SEC Championship, are in the crosshairs and what a final division we have to look at. Below are all the previews done to this point, so please feel free to check those out.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Let’s take a look at the one of the toughest divisions in college football, the SEC West.

1. LSU Tigers

Les Miles has been wonderful at LSU. In his 10 years, he has won at ten games 7 times and his “worst” year has been an 8-5 recorded in both 2008 and 2014. LSU lost the 2011 BCS Championship to Alabama 21-0 and followed that with back-to-back 10-3 seasons. 2014 was plagued by inconsistency at quarterback and both return in 2015.

The offense will have nine starters returning from a group that put 27.6 points and 387 yards per game. Brandon Harris is expected to win the starting quarterback job after throwing for 452 yards with 6 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He will have Anthony Jennings (1,611 yards with 11 touchdowns and 7 interceptions) behind him if he cannot handle those duties. Leonard Fournette was hyped as the next-coming in 2014 and he finished the year with a solid 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns while better production is expected of him in 2015. The top four receivers all return, however, their numbers are hardly overwhelming. Travin Dural had 37 catches for 758 yards and 7 touchdowns, Malachi Dupre had 14 receptions for 318 yards and 5 touchdowns, John Diarse caught 15 passes for 275 yards and 3 touchdowns, and Trey Quinn finished with 17 catches for 193 yards. With three starters back on the offensive line as well as better quarterback play in 2015, the offense should produce better numbers than they did last year.

LSU’s defense is usually pretty good. 2014 was no exception with the team yielding 17.5 points and 317 yards per game. In 2015, there will be six starters back with two on the defensive line. Those two will be Christian LaCouture (40 tackles and 2.5 sacks) and Davon Godchaux (42 tackles). LSU loses linebacker Kwon Alexander (90 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 6 tackles for loss), but does have Kendall Beckwith (77 tackles, 2 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss) and Lamar Louis (29 tackles) returning. The secondary has two starters back as well with Jalen Mills leading the way (62 tackles, 5 pass breakups, and 1 interception), but he will miss at least the first four weeks due to leg surgery. The other returning starter is Tre’Davious White, who had 33 tackles, 6 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions while Jamal Adams was integral in 2014 with 66 tackles, 1 sack, and 4 tackles for loss. The defense will be stingy again in 2015, especially when Mills returns.

LSU has a non-conference schedule of McNeese State (home), Syracuse (road), Eastern Michigan (home), and Western Kentucky (home), which makes them very likely to go 4-0 in those games. In their division, they will face Mississippi State, Alabama, and Ole Miss on the road in three very tough games while playing Auburn, Arkansas, and Texas A&M at home. From the East, they will play South Carolina (road) and Florida (home) in two winnable games. The games against Alabama on November 7, Arkansas on November 14, and Mississippi on November 21 are sure to determine whether LSU wins the SEC West.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

We all know that Nick Saban has been great at Alabama. After a 7-6 record in his first year during the 2007 season, Alabama has won at least 10 games every year since 2008. He has won three SEC Championships as well as three National Titles for the Crimson Tide. The one concern (if you can call it that) is the defense has given up 45 points and 42 points, respectively, in the past two years during the Sugar Bowl. Alabama lost both of those games including last year when they were eliminated the College Football Playoff Semifinals by eventual national champion Ohio State.

The offense put up 36.9 points and 485 yards per game in 2014 with Lane Kiffin at the helm, but 2015 will be interesting with only three starters returning. Jake Coker will be at quarterback after throwing for 403 yards with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions last year, but has plenty of talent after battling Jameis Winston when he was at Florida State. Derrick Henry was the top running back in 2014 with 990 yards and 11 touchdowns in a deep backfield while Kenyan Drake (112 yards and 4 touchdowns) is back after a broken leg last year. The biggest loss was at wide receiver with Amari Cooper (124 catches for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns) going on to the NFL. There is a lot of talent here (Robert Foster, Calvin Ridley, Daylon Charlot) and a bit of experience in OJ Howard (17 catches for 260 yards), Chris Black (15 catches for 188 yards), and ArDarius Stewart (12 catches for 149 yards), but that production will be impossible to replace. There will also be only two starters back on the line so the work will be cut out for Saban and Kiffin. It is hard to see the offense producing the same numbers in 2015 as they did in 2014.

The defense is almost always spectacular under Saban. Their worst year since 2008 was actually last year when they allowed 18.4 points and 328 yards per game, which is still a very good season. Seven starters are back in 2015 including all three on the defensive line. Jonathan Allen had 33 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 6 tackles for loss, A’Shawn Robinson had 49 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss, and Jarran Reed had 55 tackles, 1 sack, and 5.5 tackles for loss. Returning at linebacker will be the duo of Reggie Ragland (95 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 9 tackles for loss) and Denzel Devall (11 tackles) who made seven starters and was out with injury for six games. The secondary is led by Cyrus Jones, who had 46 tackles, 13 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions. Also returning in the secondary is Eddie Jackson (41 tackles, 6 pass breakups, and an interception). Look for another big year from the defense that could have even better numbers than they had in 2014.

Alabama opens the year with the tough neutral site game against Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas. They will also face the trio of Middle Tennessee, Louisiana-Monroe, and Charleston Southern at home to close out their non-conference schedule. They will have to play Ole Miss, Arkansas, and LSU at home while facing Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Auburn on the road. From the East, Alabama will play Georgia (road) and Tennessee (home). The offense is the obvious concern for Alabama, but their defense should be good enough to keep them in every game while the offense finds its feet.

3. Mississippi Rebels

Ole Miss went 4-8 in 2010 and 2-10 in 2011 in Houston Nutt’s last two years. They decided to bring in Hugh Freeze, who has steadily turned around the Rebels. He paid immediate dividends by taking the Rebels to a bowl game in his first season and then went 8-5 in 2013. 2014 was a really good season for them with a 9-4 record including a 23-17 victory over #4 Alabama at home, but were blown out by an excellent (and angry) TCU squad in the Peach Bowl.

The offense has been good under Freeze in all three seasons. In 2013, they put up 30 points and 473 yards per game while those numbers dropped a bit in 2014 to 28.3 points and 419 yards per game. There will be nine starters back for Ole Miss this year, but quarterback Bo Wallace is gone. The good news for the Rebels is they have Clemson transfer Chad Kelly ready to take over immediately after a year in the junior college ranks. They will also have the top two running backs from last year in Jaylen Walton (586 yards and 5 touchdowns) and Jordan Wilkins (361 yards and a touchdown). The receiving unit looks to be in good shape even without their top man from 2014. Evan Engram (38 catches for 662 yards and 2 touchdowns), Cody Core (41 receptions for 558 yards and 6 touchdowns, and, of course, the return of LaQuon Treadwell (48 catches for 632 yards and 5 touchdowns). The entire offensive line returns and despite the loss of Wallace, the offense should be able to put up good numbers again in 2015.

The defense was very good in 2014 by giving up only 16 points and 329 yards per game. Seven starters will be back from that defense led by the trio of Robert Nkemdiche (35 tackles, 2 sacks, and 2 tackles for loss), Isaac Gross (37 tackles, 1 sack, and 7 tackles for loss), and Marquis Haynes (31 tackles and 7.5 sacks) on the line. Also in the mix on the line are junior college transfer DJ Jones, redshirt freshman Breeland Speaks, and senior Channing Ward (30 tackles and 2.5 sacks). CJ Johnson is back at linebacker (38 tackles, 4 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss) and will be joined by Denzel Nkemdiche (28 tackles and 1 sack), who missed the final five games of the year due to a broken ankle. The secondary will have three starters back led by Tony Conner (69 tackles, 1 sack, 8 tackles for loss, and an interception), Mike Hilton (71 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions), and Trae Elston (59 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and an interception). The defense will be good again in 2015, but may not match the same numbers from 2014.

Ole Miss has an easy non-conference schedule with Tennessee-Martin, Fresno State, and New Mexico State at home and a single road game at Memphis. In division, they face Alabama, Auburn, and Mississippi State on the road and Texas A&M, Arkansas, and LSU at home. From the East, Ole Miss will take on Florida (road) and Vanderbilt (home). The Rebels will have a really good shot at a double digit win season and are in contention for the SEC West title.

4. Arkansas Razorbacks

Bret Bielema came to Arkansas in 2013 and the Razorbacks had a rough first year under him. They went 3-0 to start the season, but lost the final nine games. However, the final three games saw an improved Arkansas team that nearly upset #15 LSU on the road as a 26 point underdog. 2014 was better with Arkansas going 6-6 in the regular season including back-to-back upset shutouts of LSU (17-0) and Ole Miss (30-0). They also nearly upset Alabama at home and lost by a touchdown to the trio of Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Missouri.

The offense for Bielema will have nine starters back. In 2013, they averaged only 20.7 points and 357 yards per game while 2014 saw the numbers improve to 31.9 points and 406 yards per game. Brandon Allen is back after throwing for 2,285 yards with 20 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, but the focus will be on the running game. There are four starters back on the offensive line to pave the way for the Alex Collins. Collins had 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground in 2014, which was second the team. The top rusher was Jonathan Williams, who had 1,190 yards and 12 touchdowns, but will miss all of 2015 due to surgery on his foot. The top two receivers are back in Keon Hatcher (43 catches for 558 yards and 6 touchdowns) and Hunter Henry (37 catches for 513 yards and 2 touchdowns). If a viable second back can be developed behind Collins, the Arkansas offense could be really dangerous, but at the least they should be able to match year’s numbers.

The defense took a major step forward in 2014 when compared to 2013. In 2013, the defense gave up 30.8 points and 413 yards per game while the numbers plummeted to 19.2 points and 323 yards per game last year. There will be six starters back with two on the line in JaMichael Winston (26 tackles) and Taiwan Johnson (26 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss). The line gave up only 115 yards rushing per game and 3.5 yards per carry. The linebackers will have only Brooks Ellis back, but he was second the team in tackles with 72 while also recording 5 tackles for loss, 5 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The secondary returns mostly intact with three starters back with the trio of Jared Collins (53 tackles and 13 pass breakups), DJ Dean (29 tackles, 5 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions), and Rohan Gaines (59 tackles, 5 pass breakups, and 1 interception). The defense should be stout again in 2015.

Arkansas opens the season with games against UTEP, Toledo, and Texas Tech with all those games in the state of Arkansas. They also face Tennesssee-Martin at home in October. They will face Texas A&M in Arlington as well as Alabama, Ole Miss, and LSU on the road. They will play at home against Auburn and Mississippi State and take on Tennessee (road) and Missouri (home) from the East. Arkansas’ games against Alabama and LSU both fall on the road, but they are dangerous team in the West.

5. Auburn Tigers

Auburn won the BCS National Championship in 2010, but quickly fell to 8-5 in 2011 and then 3-9 in 2012. 2013 saw Gus Malzahn come in and nearly win another National Championship for Auburn, but they lose to Florida State in the BCS Championship 34-31. They went to 8-5 last year and are hoping to bounce back to another double digit win season in 2015.

The offense has only four starters back from a group that put up 35.5 points and 485 yards per game in 2014. Of course, Gus Malzahn is known for his offenses and he will have Jeremy Johnson slinging the ball around. Johnson threw for 436 yards and 3 touchdowns while starting the first half of the opener against Arkansas. He will have three of the top five receivers from 2014 led by Duke Williams, who had 45 catches for 730 yards and 5 touchdowns. Also back are Ricardo Louis (21 catches for 261 yards and 3 touchdowns) and Melvin Ray (8 catches for 182 yards and a touchdown). The top running back in 2014 was Cameron Artis-Payne (1,608 yards and 13 touchdowns), but he has moved on to the NFL. He will be replaced by Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas (214 yards and 2 touchdowns). There are three starters back on the offensive line to give Johnson some time as well as create lanes for Robinson and Thomas. The offense will be just fine in 2015 despite only four starters back.

The defense will have eight starters back from a unit that allowed 26.7 points and 399 yards per game. The defensive line will have DaVonte Lambert (24 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss) and Montravius Adams (43 tackles, 3 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss) back. The Buck position will be handled by Carl Lawson (out for 2014) and Gimel President (30 tackles, 1 sack, and 4 tackles for loss). At linebacker, the duo of Cassanova McKinzy (91 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 9.5 tackles for loss) and Kris Frost (87 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 6.5 tackles for loss) returning. The secondary will have three starters returning led by Johnathan Ford, who had 93 tackles and 3 interceptions last year. Also returning is Jonathan Jones, who was a ball hawk in 2014 with 11 pass breakups and 6 interceptions to go along with 36 tackles. The defense should be very solid in 2015.

Auburn opens the season with a neutral site game in Atlanta, Georgia against Louisville. They will also face Jacksonville State, San José State, and Idaho at home for their other non-conference games. Auburn will have to play LSU, Arkansas, and Texas A&M on the road while taking on Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Alabama at home. From the East, the Tigers play Kentucky (road) and Georgia (home). While it is hard to pick the Tigers this low, they are not without a chance to win the West.

6. Texas A&M Aggies

Kevin Sumlin came to Texas A&M in 2012 with two things against him: his first year in charge and the Aggies’ first year in the SEC. He did quite well by going 11-2 overall including the marvelous 29-24 upset of #1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. 2013 saw them slip slightly to 9-4 while they went 8-5 in 2014. 2015 will be Sumlin’s fourth year and he has some serious quarterback prospects in his stable.

The offense was a bit underwhelming in 2014 by Sumlin’s standards. They averaged 35.2 points and 455 yards per game, which is great for most teams, but it was nearly 10 points and 100 yards per game than in 2013. Kyle Allen will be at quarterback after getting some playing time in 2014 when he threw for 1,322 yards with 16 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He will be throwing to Josh Reynolds (52 catches for 842 yards and 13 touchdowns), Speedy Noil (46 catches for 583 yards and 5 touchdowns), Ricky Seals-Jones (49 catches for 465 yards and 4 touchdowns), and Edward Pope (30 catches for 454 yards and 4 touchdowns). Tra Carson was the top running back in 2014 with 581 yards and 5 touchdowns and returns alongside Brandon Williams (379 yards and 3 touchdowns). Three starters are back on the offensive line and the numbers should go up for the offense in 2015.

The defense will have eight starters back in 2015 from a group that allowed 28.1 points and 451 yards per game. The trio of Daeshon Hall (29 tackles and 4.5 sacks), Hardreck Walker (35 tackles), and Alonzo Williams (57 tackles and 4.5 sacks) will be returning on the line. The linebackers were hit hard, but the hybrid spot, Rush, will be manned by Myles Garrett, who had 53 tackles and 11.5 sacks. Only Shaan Washington returns at one of the traditional linebacker spots after recording 64 tackles, 2 sacks, and 2 tackles for loss last year. The secondary has De’Vante Harris (53 tackles and 1 interception) and Armani Watts (59 tackles, 8 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions) back. It is hard to imagine the defense not improving in 2015 with the amount of experience returning.

Texas A&M opens the year with Arizona State in Houston, Texas. After that, they will play Ball State, Nevada, and Western Carolina at home in their non-conference schedule. In division, they have to take on Arkansas in Arlington, Texas before playing Mississippi State, Alabama, and Auburn at home. They will play both Ole Miss and LSU on the road. From the East, they have the duo of South Carolina (home) and Vanderbilt (road) in two winnable games. The Aggies are immensely talented and will have a better offense, which makes it tough to put them this low. They do have a chance to make noise in the West and make the SEC Championship game.

7. Mississippi State Bulldogs

Dan Mullen has been pretty consistent since taking over Mississippi State in 2009. They went 5-7 in that first year, but have made five straight bowl games since then and have also had a winning season each year since 2010. 2014 was nearly a magical season for MSU, as they opened 9-0 before losing three of their last four games. Their two regular season losses were on the road to Alabama and Ole Miss and were then walloped in the Orange Bowl, 49-34. 2015 looks like a rough year with only seven total starters returning.

The offense will have four starters back from a group that put up 36.9 points and 514 yards per game in 2014. The good news is that quarterback Dak Prescott is one of those returning after throwing for 3,449 yards with 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while also rushing for 986 yards and 14 touchdowns. Prescott will be leaned on heavily all season with the top returning running backs in Brandon Holloway (294 yards and 1 touchdown) and Ashton Shumpert (274 yards and 2 touchdowns). The top two receivers also return with De’Runnya Wilson (47 catches for 680 yards and 9 touchdowns) and Fred Ross (30 catches for 489 yards and 5 touchdowns) leading the way. There will be only two starters back on the line as well. Despite just four starters returning, they are in a good spot with the quarterback and top two receivers back, but it will be tough for them to match last year’s output.

The defense has only three starters back from a unit that allowed 21.7 points and 424 yards per game. Ryan Brown is the lone returning starter on the line after recording 39 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss. He will be joined by Chris Jones (26 tackles and 3 sacks) and AJ Jefferson (28 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss). At linebacker, Beniquez Brown is back after recording 62 tackles (#2 on team) along with 2 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions. Richie Brown saw playing time in every game in 2014 and recorded 50 tackles and 3 interceptions as well. The secondary has just Taveze Calhoun (53 tackles, 9 pass breakups, and 1 interception) back at starter, but Will Redmond had a solid year as well with 51 tackles, 5 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions. It will be hard for the Bulldogs to have as good a year as they did in 2014 on the defensive side of the ball.

MSU will have Southern Miss on the road to start their non-conference slate, but finish up with Northwestern State, Troy, and Louisiana Tech at home. In conference, they will play Auburn, Texas A&M, and Arkansas on the road while taking on LSU, Alabama, and Ole Miss at home. From the East, they will play both Kentucky (home) and Missouri (road). In a very deep SEC West, it is tough to put the Bulldogs down here with Dak Prescott returning as well as Dan Mullen at the helm. At the very worst, MSU should be back in a bowl game for 2015, but can cause some serious problems for the other teams in the West.

Overview

How difficult is it to predict the SEC West? All seven teams made a bowl game in 2014 and all seven teams have a legit chance at winning the division this year. If you are a fan of one of the teams picked at the bottom, do not fret because this was the hardest preview to write given the quality and depth of all the teams. The predicted order of finish below is sure to be wrong, but that is a testament to the SEC West.

1. LSU

2. Alabama

3. Mississippi

4. Arkansas

5. Auburn

6. Texas A&M

7. Mississippi State

SEC Championship

For the SEC Championship, we had Tennessee winning the SEC East to set up a contest against LSU, the winner of the SEC West. If that were to be the SEC Championship, we will go with LSU to capture yet another for the West Division, which would be the 7th straight against the East.

That concludes the 2015 College Football Preview here at Sports Enthusiasts. Be sure to check back for more news and information regarding all the divisions in College Football, but also for standings and schedules.

2015 College Football Preview: SEC East

Maty Mauk has been an integral part of Missouri making back-to-back SEC Championship games in 2013 and 2014. Will it be a third in a row for the Tigers? (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America)
Maty Mauk has been an integral part of Missouri making back-to-back SEC Championship games in 2013 and 2014. Will it be a third in a row for the Tigers? (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: SEC East

Part 18 of Sports Enthusiasts’ 2015 College Football preview looks at the SEC East in the penultimate preview. As usual, the SEC East is wide open with talented teams and an up and coming team all in the mix. Below are the previews completed and the SEC West preview scheduled for Friday, August 28.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Let’s take a closer look at how the SEC East will shake out.

1. Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee has fallen on hard times in recent years. Between 2008 and 2012, the Volunteers had four losing seasons with only two bowl appearances and they lost both of those games. Butch Jones came in for the 2013 season after three years at Central Michigan (2007 through 2009) and Cincinnati (2010 through 2012). Tennessee went 5-7 in his first year (2013) and improved to 7-6 in 2014 with smashing 45-28 victory in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa. 2015 provides Jones with his most experienced team.

The offense will have 10 starters back, which is double the number from both 2013 and 2014. In 2013, the offense put up 23.8 points and 353 yards per game while that number went up to 28.9 points and 371 yards per game in 2014. The quarterback position was hampered by injuries in 2014 with Joshua Dobbs the top returning guy after throwing for 1,209 yards with 9 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. At running back will be Jalen Hurd (899 yards and 5 touchdowns) and former Alabama commit Alvin Kamara. Dobbs also has some wheels after rushing for 469 yards and 8 touchdowns. The entire receiving unit is back with Pig Howard (54 catches for 618 yards and a touchdown), Von Pearson (38 catches for 393 yards and 5 touchdowns), Marquez North (30 catches for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns), and Jason Croom (21 catches for 305 yards and 4 touchdowns). The offensive line has four starter back and the offense should be able to easily produce the highest numbers under Jones.

The defense will have eight starters back from a unit that allowed 24.2 points and 365 yards per game. The defensive line will have two starters back led by Derek Barnett, who was a monster in 2014 with 72 tackles, 10 sacks, and 10.5 tackles for loss. Three linebackers return in Jalen Reeves-Maybin (101 tackles, 2 sacks, and 9 tackles for loss), Curt Maggitt (48 tackles, 11 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss), and Corey Vereen (24 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss). The secondary will also have three starters back including both safeties in Brian Randolph (88 tackles and 2 interceptions) and LaDarrell McNeil (76 tackles and 2 interceptions). Cameron Sutton will be at cornerback after recording 37 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 13 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions. The defense should be even better in 2015, which is a scary thought.

Tennessee opens the year with Bowling Green in Nashville before a big game against Oklahoma at home. They will also face Western Carolina and North Texas at home to close out their non-conference schedule. In conference, the Vols will play Florida, Kentucky, and Missouri on the road while staying home to face Georgia, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. From the West, Tennessee has Arkansas at home and will face their rival Alabama on the road. Despite the tough draw from the West, Tennessee has the ability to win those games and have a great chance against the biggest contenders in the East. Tennessee is the pick to win the East in a surely contentious and open division.

2. Missouri Tigers

Missouri was in the Big 12 Championship in the 2007 season with a chance to make the National Championship, but were demolished 38-17 and ended up being left out of the BCS altogether. The Tigers still had really good seasons in 2008 (10-4) and 2010 (10-3), but began their SEC life with a 5-7 record. That changed in a hurry as the Tigers have been to back-to-back SEC Championship games under Gary Pinkel.

The offense took a big step back in 2014 with only 27.8 points and 367 yards per game of output. Compared to 2013, when they put up 39.1 points and 491 yards, it was tough year even with four starters back. In 2015, there will be six starters back led by quarterback Maty Mauk, who had 2,648 yards with 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Russell Hansbrough returns after rushing for 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns and Mauk can run the ball if needed as well (373 yards and 2 touchdowns). Wide receiver is a concern with the top four gone. The top returning receiver is tight end Sean Culkin, who had 20 catches for 187 yards and 1 touchdown. Others who may have an impact are J’Mon Moore (2 catches for 33 yards), Nate Brown (5 catches for 45 yards), and Wesley Leftwich (3 catches for 36 yards), but are light on experience. The offensive line will have four starters back, which will create plenty of protection for Mauk and running lanes. The concern is the receivers, but Missouri has the ability to produce higher totals this year despite that.

The defense has been very solid the last two years. In 2013, the defense gave up 23.1 points and 418 yards per game while those numbers went down to 21.1 points and 346 yards per game in 2014 (only 4 starters back). There will six starters back in 2015 including the top two tackles. On the line, only Harold Brantley returns after recording 54 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, and 3 pass breakups. The top tacklers from 2015 reside in the linebacking unit. Kentrell Brothers had 122 tackles, 1 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss while Michael Scherer had 114 tackles and 3 tackles for loss. The secondary has three starters back from a unit that allowed 213 passing yards per game and 60.8% completions. Aarion Penton (36 tackles, 10 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions), Kenya Dennis (61 tackles, 9 pass breakups, and an interception), and Ian Simon (54 tackles and 1 interception) are the returners. The defensive line is the obvious worry, but the Tigers could match last year’s numbers and possibly improve them.

The Tigers have only one real test on the non-conference slate. They will face Southeast Missouri State (home), Arkansas State (road), Connecticut (home), and BYU (in Kansas City, Missouri). Within their division, Missouri will face Kentucky, Georgia, and Vanderbilt on the road while playing South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee at home. They have to play Mississippi State (home) and Arkansas (road) from the West, but they can win both of those games. The schedule sets up well for Missouri to have a serious shot at winning a third straight East Division title and another big bowl game.

3. Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia is consistently one of the better teams in the SEC under Mark Richt. The Bulldogs have made a bowl game in all 14 years under Richt and have only one losing season in 2010 when they went 6-7. More impressively, Georgia has won at last 10 games nine times with Richt at the helm. The Bulldogs have also won 2 SEC Championship under Richt, however, the last one came in 2005. The Bulldogs went 10-3 in 2014 without Aaron Murray and will look to do the same without their starter from last year.

The offense has seven starters back, but as alluded to earlier, Hutson Mason (2,168 yards with 21 touchdowns and 4 interceptions) is not one of them. Brice Ramsey seems to be in line to start (333 yards with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions), but he will have competition from Faton Bauta and Greyson Lambert. Nick Chubb will be the top running back after rushing for 1,547 yards with 14 touchdowns while Todd Gurley (911 yards and 9 touchdowns) was hampered by an NCAA investigation and eventually a torn ACL. The top two receivers are gone as well, but Jeb Blazevich (18 catches for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Malcolm Mitchell (31 catches for 248 yards and 3 touchdowns) are set to step up. The offensive line has four starters back, but the losses at quarterback and receiver are worrisome. The Bulldogs put up 41.3 points and 458 yards per game in 2014 and will probably not match that in 2015.

The defense was stout last year by giving up only 20.7 points and 337 yards per game with eight starters back. There will be six starters back in 2015 with one starter back on the line in Jordan Jenkins from linebacker. Jenkins had 70 tackles, 5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss. Two linebackers return in Lorenzo Carter (41 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss) and Leonard Floyd (55 tackles, 6 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss). The secondary will have three starters back from a group that allowed only 170 passing yards per game and 53.8% completions. The trio returning are Aaron Davis (40 tackles, 5 pass breakups, and an interception), Quincy Mauger (51 tackles, 4 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions), and Dominick Sanders (34 tackles, 5 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions). The defense should be solid again and while they may not match or top last year’s numbers, they could come close.

Georgia faces Louisiana-Monroe, Southern, Georgia Southern, and Georgia Tech in non-conference action with the only road game against the Yellow Jackets. In conference, Georgia has to face Vanderbilt and Tennessee on the road while playing Florida in Jacksonville, as usual. They will also face South Carolina, Missouri, and Kentucky at home. From the West, Georgia will take on Alabama (home) and Auburn (road) to give them another tough draw. Georgia has the talent to win the East and the division is certainly there for the taking.

4. Florida Gators

Since Urban Meyer’s departure after the 2010 season, there have been more bad times than good for the Florida Gators. They went 7-6 in 2011 before a slight resurgence to 11-2 and a Sugar Bowl appearances, but they were crushed in that game and it was all downhill after that. They missed a bowl game entire in 2013 with a terrible 4-8 record and went 7-5 last year. Will Muschamp was in charge for the last four seasons, but he was let go. Jim McElwain has been installed as the head coach after three seasons at Colorado State where he went 22-16.

The offense in 2013 for Florida was atrocious. They put up a paltry 18.8 points and 317 yards per game while the numbers improved drastically in 2014 with 30.3 points and 368 yards per game. Enter McElwain, who nearly 35 points and 500 yards per game in his final two years at Colorado State. The quarterback position was unsettled last year due to injuries, suspensions, and ineffectiveness. Treon Harris threw for 1,019 yards with 9 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, but will be competing with Will Grier for the QB duties. The running back position is led by Kelvin Taylor, who had 565 yards and 6 touchdowns, but the loss of Adam Lane (181 yards and 1 touchdown) will hurt the depth. Demarcus Robinson (53 catches for 810 yards and 7 touchdowns) was the top receiver last year and returns for 2015 along with Ahmad Fulwood (12 catches for 199 yards and a touchdown), Latroy Pittman (15 catches for 164 yards), and Brandon Powell (15 catches for 147 yards and a touchdown). There is only one offensive lineman returning and the offense is also learning new schemes. With all that in mind, it is tough to see the Gators putting up a high amount of points, but there is serious talent left over from Muschamp’s tenure.

The defense was very good to excellent under Muschamp, which is no surprise. In 2012, the defense allowed 14.5 points and 287 yards per game in their 11-2 season. The numbers rose to 21.1 points per game in both 2013 and 2014 while the yards per game were 314 in 2013 and 330 in 2014. This year, there will be seven starters back with two on the line in Bryan Cox (29 tackles and 4 sacks) and Jonathan Bullard (52 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 6 tackles for loss) while highly rated freshman Cece JeffersonAntonio Morrison is the lone linebacker returning, but he is a good one after leading team in tackles with 101. The secondary is clearly the strength of the defense with all four starters back led by Vernon Hargreaves (50 tackles, 13 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions). Brian Poole (45 tackles, 10 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions), Keanu Neal (45 tackles and 3 interceptions), and Marcus Maye (62 tackles) all return as well. The secondary should be one of the best, if not the top, secondaries in the nation. Overall, the defense should be stout again with that back four leading the way.

Florida faces New Mexico State, East Carolina, Florida Atlantic, and Florida State as part of their non-conference schedule and all four of those games are at home. Within their division, Florida faces Kentucky, Missouri, and South Carolina on the road while playing both Tennessee and Vanderbilt at home. The Gators also face Georgia in their annual clash in Jacksonville. From the West, Florida will play Ole Miss (home) and LSU (road) in two tough games. The talent is there for the Gators to win the East, but a new coach and some losses on the offense leave some worries about actually getting it done.

5. South Carolina Gamecocks

It is hard to believe that Steve Spurrier will be entering his 11th year at South Carolina. He has led South Carolina to an overall record of 84-45 and has not had a losing season. However, the Gamecocks have not won the SEC Championship and have only played in the SEC Championship game once in 2010 when they were lit up 56-17. Still, South Carolina had three straight years of 11-2 records from 2011 through 2013 and Spurrier looks to get them back to those heights after a 7-6 record in 2014.

The offense put up 32.6 points and 443 yards per game, but will only return four starters from last seasons. The quartet of Connor Mitch, Perry Orth, Lorenzo Nunez, and Michael Scarnecchia will battle it out to replace Dylan Thompson (3,564 yards with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions). The top returning rusher is Brandon Wilds (570 yards and 4 touchdowns) and he will be joined by David Williams (256 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Shon Carson (141 yards with 2 touchdowns). Pharoh Cooper returns at wide receiver after leading the team in 2014 with 69 catches for 1,136 yards and 9 touchdowns. Tight end Jerell Adams is the second leading returning receiver with 21 catches for 279 yards and 1 touchdown. There are three starters back on the line as well. The lack of experience is a huge concern for the offense and the last time this few of starters returned, they only put up 20.6 points and 347 yards per game.

The defense is in better shape than the offense with eight starters returning including three on the offensive line. The duo of Gerald Dixon (42 tackles and 2 sacks) and Gerald Dixon Jr. (29 tackles) will be joined by Darius English (24 tackles) and junior college transfer Marquavius Lewis. The top three linebackers return in Skai Moore (93 tackles and 3 interceptions), TJ Gurley (80 tackles), and Jonathan Walton (61 tackles). The secondary is the concern here with two starters back in Chris Lammons (21 tackles) and Chris Moody (37 tackles). The defense allowed 30.4 points and 433 yards per game in 2014, but those numbers should improve in 2015 with more experience returning.

South Carolina opens the year with a game against North Carolina in Charlotte, North Carolina. Their three other non-conference games are against Central Florida, The Citadel, and Clemson with all of those games at home. They will face Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee on the road in three tough games while playing Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida at home. From the West, the Gamecocks have LSU (home) and Texas A&M on the road. If the offense can get its act together quickly and perform well above expectations, then South Carolina has a great chance at contending in the East.

6. Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky has been a middle of the road SEC team at best for a long while. With Joker Phillips at the helm, the Wildcats went 6-7 in year one before falling off to 5-7 and 2-10 in his final two years. Mark Stoops was brought in and produced the same 2-10 record in his first year. 2014 was a step in the right direction with a 5-1 that included a brutal triple overtime loss to Florida, 36-30. They finished the year with six straight losses preventing them from making a bowl game.

Kentucky’s offense put up 29.2 points and 384 yards per game in 2014, a step up from the 20.5 points and 341 yards per game they produced in 2013. This year, seven starters are back led by quarterback Patrick Towles, who threw for 2,718 yards with 14 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. The running game has Stanley Williams back after he ran for 486 yards and 5 touchdowns as the leading rusher, though that will need to go up in 2015. Jojo Kemp (323 yards and 4 touchdowns) and Mikel Horton (306 yards and 2 touchdowns) are also at running back. Ryan Timmons is back after leading the team with 45 receptions for 536 yards and 2 touchdowns. Also returning are Garrett Johnson (22 catches for 271 yards and 2 touchdowns), Dorian Baker (19 catches for 199 yards and 1 touchdown), and Blake Bone (14 catches for 194 yards with 2 touchdowns). The offensive line has four starters back and the offense should continue its upward trend in points and yards per game in 2015.

The defense has been consistently sub par in Stoops’ first two years. In 2013, the defense gave up 31.2 points and 427 yards per game and those numbers were nearly the same in 2014 when they allowed 31.3 points and 407 yards per game. In 2015, the number of starters returning is seven including four of the top six tacklers. On the line, Melvin Lewis is the lone returning starter after recording 37 tackles last year. The three linebackers all return in Ryan Flannigan (57 tackles), Khalid Henderson (53 tackles), and Josh Forrest (110 tackles and 7 tackles for loss). The secondary has three starters back led by Cody Quinn (35 tackles), Fred Tiller (46 tackles, 9 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions), and AJ Stamps (56 tackles and 4 interceptions). Year three of the Stoops era should produce the best defense yet.

Kentucky has a non-conference schedule that consists of Louisiana-Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky, Charlotte, and Louisville with all those at home. They will face South Carolina, Georgia, and Vanderbilt on the road while taking on Florida, Missouri, and Tennessee at home. From the West, Kentucky will play Auburn (home) and Mississippi State (road). Kentucky is the wild card team in the East due to their ability to completely shake up the standings.

7. Vanderbilt Commodores

Vanderbilt was undoubtedly going in the right direction under James Franklin. He led them to three straight bowls between 2011 and 2013 while going 9-4 in his final two years. Unfortunately, Derek Mason was not able to produce the same results in his first year with Vanderbilt going backward to 3-9 including 0-8 in the SEC last year.

The offense for Vandy in 2014 was poor gaining only 288 yards per game and scoring just 17.2 points per contest. There will be in starters back from that group led by quarterback Johnny McCrary, who was the leading passer in 2014 with only 985 yards with 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Wade Freeback threw for 365 yards with 1 touchdown and 5 interceptions. At running back will be Ralph Webb, who was a bright spot as a freshman with 912 yards and 4 touchdowns. The top three receivers are back in Steven Scheu (39 catches for 525 yards and 4 touchdowns), CJ Duncan (28 catches for 441 yards with 4 touchdowns), and Latevius Rayford (36 catches for 350 yards and a touchdown). The offensive line has four starters back and the offense should produce better in 2015.

The defense has nine starters back from a group that allowed 33.3 points and 402 yards per game. There are two back on the line led by Caleb Azubike (39 tackles and 4 sacks) and Adam Butler (35 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss). The linebackers have three returning starters in Nigel Bowden (78 tackles), Stephen Weatherly (55 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 8 tackles for loss), and Darreon Herring (45 tackles). The secondary has all four starters back with Torren McGaster leading the way with 66 tackles and 2 interceptions. The defense should improve in 2015 with the experience and depth returning.

Vanderbilt will play Western Kentucky, Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, and Houston with the first two at home and the second two on the road. In their division, Vandy will take on South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee on the road and play Georgia, Missouri, and Kentucky at home. From the West, they will play Ole Miss (road) and Texas A&M (home). Vanderbilt will be struggling for wins again in 2015, but they will be a tough out in some games this year.

Overview

The SEC East is wide open with Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina all having enough talent to win the division. Kentucky is a dangerous team that can spoil the hopes of any of the top five teams with an upset while Vanderbilt is still lagging behind. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Tennessee

2. Missouri

3. Georgia

4. Florida

5. South Carolina

6. Kentucky

7. Vanderbilt

Check back on Friday for the final preview of this series with the SEC West. We will also predict the winner of the SEC Championship.

2015 College Football Preview: Pac-12 South

Todd Graham is back for his fourth year at Arizona State in the deep Pac-12 South Division. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America)
Todd Graham is back for his fourth year at Arizona State in the deep Pac-12 South Division. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: Pac-12 South

We have reached part seventeen of Sports Enthusiasts’ 2015 College Football Preview. The Pac-12 South is on tap to be previewed as well as the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Previews will close out next week with the SEC. The entire schedule is below.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Let’s delve into the tough Pac-12 South Division.

1. Arizona State Sun Devils

Todd Graham came in for the 2012 season and immediately made the offense better and also improved the defense. They went from 6-7 in 2011 to 8-5 in 2012. 2013 was even better when the Sun Devils went 10-4, but lost the Pac-12 Title Game, as well as Holiday Bowl. 2014 was another double digit win season with ASU going 10-3 thanks to a 36-31 win over Duke in the Sun Bowl. 2015 represents Graham’s most starters returning with 16 (previous high was 15 in 2013).

The offense will have seven starters back from a unit hat produced 36.9 points and 442 yards per game. Taylor Kelly is gone after an injury filled season, which saw Mike Bercovici play at quarterback. Bercovici threw for 1,445 yards with 12 touchdowns and 4 interceptions while returning this year to lead the offense. DJ Foster ran for 1,081 yards and 9 touchdowns, but has been moved to wide receiver while Demario Richard had 478 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns. Jaelen Strong was the top receiver last year with 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns, but has moved on to the NFL. Foster was the second leading receiver with 62 catches for 688 yards and 3 touchdowns and should be one of the top receivers again in 2015 with the full-time move to the position. Also in the fold are Cameron Smith (41 catches for 596 yards and 6 touchdowns), Gary Chambers (10 catches for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns), Kody Kohl (16 catches for 167 yards and 4 touchdowns), and Ellis Jefferson (11 catches for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns). Three starters are back on the offensive line as well. While the loss of Strong hurts, there is plenty of talent and experience on the team to see the offense have a chance to be even more productive.

The defense has nine starters back, which is a vast improvement over last year. In 2014, the defense had only two starters returning and still gave up 27.9 points and 417 yards per game. Three starters are back on the defensive line led by Edmond Boateng (22 tackles and 2.5 sacks) and Tashon Smallwood (23 tackles and 2 sacks). The linebackers have two starters returning led by Salamo Fiso (83 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for loss) and Antonio Longino (94 tackles, 2 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss). The secondary has three starters back led by Jordan Simone, who had 100 tackles (#2 on team), 1 sack, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions. The defense will probably be the key for ASU in 2015 if they are to contend for the Pac-12 title and they have an excellent chance at being even better than they were in 2014.

Arizona State opens the year in Houston, Texas to face Texas A&M. The final two non-conference games are at home against Cal Poly and New Mexico. In division, they face USC, Colorado, and Arizona at home while playing UCLA and Utah on the road. From the North, ASU has Oregon (home), Washington State (road), Washington (home), and California (road). The offense will be good enough for ASU to probably win most of their conference games and could set up a rematch of the Oregon game in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

2. UCLA Bruins

UCLA will be entering 2015 with Jim Mora in his fourth season. UCLA went 9-5 in year one during 2012 including a three point loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 Title Game. 2013 and 2014 produced identical 10-3 records with bowl victories each year. 2015 sees Mora have his most experienced team with 18 starters, which makes them a very dangerous team this year.

The offense for UCLA has 10 starters returning, but quarterback Brett Hundley (3,155 yards passing with 22 touchdowns and 5 interceptions; 644 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns) departs. The trio of Josh Rosen, Jerry Neuheisel, and Asiantii Woulard will be battling to replace Hundley. The good news is the rest of the offense returns led by Paul Perkins at running back. Perkins ran for 1,575 yards and 9 touchdowns while also grabbing 26 catches for 201 yards and 2 touchdowns. The top five receivers all return led by Jordan Payton (67 catches for 954 yards and 7 touchdowns), Thomas Duarte (28 catches for 540 yards and 4 touchdowns), and Devin Fuller (59 catches for 447 yards and a touchdown). The entire offensive line returns as well. After putting up 33.4 points and 468 yards per game in 2014, the offense could reach those numbers again, but will need the quarterback to play very well right out of the gate.

The defense has eight starters back in 2015, just like they did last year. The 2014 version allowed 28.1 points and 399 yards per game. Two starters are back on the defensive line in Kenny Clark (58 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss) and Eddie Vanderdoes (50 tackles, 2 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss). At linebacker, two starters return including the versatile Myles Jack. Jack was second on the team with 88 tackles, but also had 8 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and an interception (also had 113 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns). Also returning is Deon Hollins, who had 31 tackles, 9 sacks, and 2 pass breakups. The secondary has all four starters back after allowing 251 yards passing and 61.6% completions. Priest Willis (22 tackles), Fabian Moreau (53 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 8 pass breakups), Jaleel Wadood (59 tackles), and Randall Goforth (2013 starter with 78 tackles and 3 interceptions) will be in the secondary. After performing worse than expected in 2014, the defense should bounce back and could produce the best defense yet under Mora (2013 with 23.2 points and 386 yards per game allowed).

UCLA welcomes Virginia to LA before a road trip to UNLV in week two. Their final non-conference game is at home against BYU. Within the South division, UCLA faces Arizona, Utah, and USC on the road. At home, they will take on Arizona State and Colorado. From the North, UCLA draws Stanford (road), California (home), Oregon State (road), and Washington State (home). The games against Arizona State (10/3) and USC (11/28) are sure to decide if they make the Pac-12 Championship Game, which they definitely can.

3. USC Trojans

USC was crushed by NCAA sanctions in Lane Kiffin’s first two years, but they still managed to go 18-7 those two seasons including a 10-2 record in 2011. In 2012, they slumped to 7-6 after being considered as one of the top teams that year and Kiffin’s time ended in 2013 after the Arizona State game when they were 3-2. They finished the year 10-4 before hiring Steve Sarkisian prior to the 2014 season. Sarkisian went 9-4 in year one and the expectations are high for his second season in charge.

On offense, USC will have seven starters returning from a group that put up 35.8 points and 458 yards per game. Cody Kessler looked comfortable in the system throwing for 3,826 yards with 39 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He loses three of his top five receivers including Nelson Agholor, who had 104 catches for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns. Juju Smith-Schuster is back to take one of the starting spots again after grabbing 54 passes for 724 yards and 5 touchdowns. Darreus Rogers had 21 catches for 245 yards and 4 touchdowns while Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, Steven Mitchell, and Adoree’ Jackson could make an impact in the passing game. The rushing game took a hit with Javorius “Buck” Allen leaving after rushing for 1,489 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2014. Justin Davis (595 yards and 4 touchdowns), James Toland (102 yards), and Tre Madden (703 yards in 2013) are all expected to see action. The offensive line returns intact as well to help make holes for the rushing game and protect Kessler. The offense loses some big players at running back and wide receiver, but they could match last year’s numbers in year two of Sarkisian’s schemes.

The defense has seven starters back in 2015 after allowing 25.2 points and 408 yards per game. The two linemen returning are Antwaun Woods (37 tackles and 1 sack) and Delvon Simmons (4 tackles and 1 sack). Two linebackers also return in Anthony Sarao (74 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 interceptions) and Su’a Cravens (68 tackles, 5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 9 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions). The secondary has three starters back including two-way play Adoree’ Jackson (49 tackles and 10 pass breakups), Kevon Seymour (49 tackles and 13 pass breakups), and Leon McQuay (36 tackles, 4 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions). The defense should improve in 2015 with the new schemes under their belt and more depth as well.

USC opens with Arkansas State and Idaho at home the first two weeks before completing their non-conference slate on October 17 against Notre Dame on the road. Within their division, USC will face Arizona State and Colorado on the road while taking on Utah, Arizona, and UCLA at home. From the North, USC has to play Stanford (home), Washington (home), California (road), and Oregon (road). The talent is there for USC to win the division, but facing the top three from the North makes it harder for them to do it. However, do not count them out in year two under Steve Sarkisian.

4. Arizona Wildcats

Rich Rodriguez did not have a good time at Michigan going 15-22 with two losing seasons. After a year off in 2011, Rich Rod came back to coaching by taking over at Arizona, which was coming off a 4-8 record. Rich Rod has done well in his three years going 8-5 in both 2012 and 2013 while upping the record to 10-4 in 2014 with a Pac-12 Title Game appearance (lost 51-13 to Oregon).

Offense has not been an issue for Arizona in Rodriguez’s tenure. Last year, the offense put up 34.5 points and 464 yards per game and seven starters return from that group. Quarterback Anu Solomon threw for 3,793 yards with 28 touchdowns and 9 interceptions while also rushing for 291 yards and 2 touchdowns. He will be back along with last year’s top rusher in Nick Wilson, who had 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns. The top receivers are back for Arizona with Cayleb Jones catching 73 passes for 1,019 yards and 9 touchdowns last year. The other is Samajie Grant, who had 45 catches for 718 yards and 6 touchdowns. The offensive line has only two starters back, but does have some transfers coming in. The offense has a great chance to produce higher numbers than the last two years.

The defense has not been bad under Rodriguez the last two years. In 2013, the defense allowed 24.2 points and 401 yards per game, but that was due to all 11 starters returning. Last year, the defense gave up 28.2 points and 451 yards per game with six starters back. That same number returns this year including the electric Scooby Wright at linebacker. He was named 1st Team All-American last year after recording 163 tackles, 14 sacks, and 15 tackles for loss! He will be joined by Derrick Turituri at linebacker after he had 44 tackles, 3 sacks, and 2 tackles for loss. On the line, three starters return led by Reggie Gilbert, who had 49 tackles, 3 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss. The other two starters will be joined by junior college transfers to give them solid depth on the line. The secondary has two starters back in William Parks (81 tackles, 1 sack, 12 tackles for loss, 8 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions) and Jarvis McCall (49 tackles and 7 pass breakups). The defense will probably have similar numbers to last year.

Arizona’s non-conference schedule consists of Texas-San Antonio (home), Nevada (road), and Northern Arizona (home). From the South, Arizona will have to play UCLA and Utah at home while going on the road to face Colorado, USC, and Arizona State. From the North, Arizona has to play Stanford (road), Oregon State (home), Washington State (home), and Washington (road). Arizona should be back in a bowl game in 2015 and could make some noise with an upset or two in the Pac-12.

5. Utah Utes

Kyle Wittingham has been the head coach at Utah since 2005. In that time, Utah has 85-43 with only two losing seasons and also transitioned from the Mountain West to Pac-12. The Utes went 8-5 in year one of their Pac-12 career in 2011, but dropped to 5-7 the next two seasons. 2014 was a much improved effort with Utah going 5-4 in conference and 9-4 overall. Despite that 5-4 record in conference, Utah still finished fifth in the South Division, but they were very good last season.

There will be seven starters back on offense from a group that put up 31.3 points and 388 yards per game. Travis Wilson threw for 2,170 yards with 18 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, but may find himself in a battle with Kendal Thompson (324 yards with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions). Devontae Booker is returning at running back as well after he ran for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. Booker is also the second leading receiver that is coming back after grabbing 43 passes for 306 yards and 2 touchdowns. The top receiver this year will be Kenneth Scott, who had 48 catches for 506 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Utes did lose three of their top four receivers from 2014. The offensive line has four starters back and the offense will probably do well no matter who is at quarterback.

The defense will have seven starters returning after allowing 24.9 points and 393 yards per game in 2014. The line will have three starters back in Hunter Dimick (52 tackles, 10 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss), Lowell Lotulelei (33 tackles and 4 sacks), and Jason Fanaika (55 tackles, 5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss). Also in the mix on the line will be UCLA transfer Kyle Fitts. Two are returning at linebacker led by Jared Norris, who had 116 tackles, 4 sacks, and 9 tackles for loss. The secondary has Dominique Hatfield (38 tackles, 9 pass breakups, and an interception), Marcus Williams (59 tackles), and Gionni Paul (51 tackles and 4 interceptions) back. The defense will be solid again in 2015.

Utah will have an interesting non-conference schedule to set them up for Pac-12 play. They will face both Michigan and Utah State at home before a road game at Fresno State. From their division, Utah will face Arizona State, UCLA, and Colorado at home while playing USC and Arizona on the road. From the North, Utah has to play Oregon (road), California (home), Oregon State (home), and Washington (road). While it is hard to pick Utah fifth with a solid team, someone has to be put here. However, Utah is capable of pulling upsets (see UCLA and USC in 2014 and Stanford in 2013). Utah should not have trouble making a bowl game in 2015 and could make some noise in this tough Pac-12 South.

6. Colorado Buffaloes

It has been a rough decade for Colorado. They have not had a winning season since 2005 and only one bowl appearance in that time (2007 loss to Alabama 30-24). The Buffaloes entered the Pac-12 in 2011 with Jon Embree at the helm, but he struggled mightily with his final record being 4-21 in those two years. Mike MacIntyre was hired for the 2013 season and the Buffaloes won four games in 2013 to go 4-8 before falling to 2-10 last year. There are some positives for Colorado going forward in MacIntyre’s third year.

The offense for Colorado put up only 17.8 points and 303 yards per game in 2012. With the coaching change, those numbers increased to 25.4 points and 370 yards per game in 2013 before going even higher in 2014. There will be seven starters back from last year’s group that put up 28.5 points and 439 yards per game. Quarterback Sefo Liufau threw for 3,200 yards with 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Three of the top four running backs return, but their output was poor last year. Christian Powell (448 yards and 4 touchdowns), Michael Adkins (398 yards and 3 touchdowns), and Phillip Lindsay (391 yards) will all be back as they look to increase production. The top two receivers return in Nelson Spruce (106 catches for 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns) and Shay Fields (50 catches for 486 yards and 4 touchdowns). The offensive line has four starters back while the offense as a whole should be able to improve on last year’s numbers.

The defense has been the issue the last four seasons. In 2012, they gave up 46 points and 489 yards per game while those numbers went down to 38.3 points and 468 yards per game in 2013. 2014 was about the same with the defense surrendering 39 points and 461 yards per game. There will be nine starters back from that defense, which may or may not be a good thing. The defensive line has three starters back in Derek McCartney (24 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 2 tackles for loss), Josh Tupou (28 tackles, 2 sacks, and 2 tackles for loss), and Jimmie Gilbert (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss). The linebackers all return led by Kenneth Olugbode (70 tackles), Addison Gillam (64 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss), and Chidobe Awuzie (62 tackles). The secondary has three starters back led by Tedric Thompson, who had 56 tackles and 3 interceptions last year. The defense should improve in 2015 with depth and experience both going upward.

Colorado begins the year on the road at Hawaii, which will allow them to have four non-conference games. They finish up the non-conference slate within the state of Colorado against Massachusetts (home), Colorado State (in Denver), and Nicholls State (home). In their division, Colorado has to face Arizona State, UCLA, and Utah on the road while playing Arizona and USC at home. From the North, Colorado has the quartet of Oregon (home), Oregon State (road), Stanford (home), and Washington State (road). It will be another rough year for Colorado in terms of their record, but they will be making strides this year to set them up for the next few seasons.

Overview

The Pac-12 South is very deep in terms of talent and experience, which made it hard to predict. Arizona State, UCLA, and USC seem to be the trio that stands out, but counting out Arizona and Utah would be a mistake. Colorado is clearly the worst team in the division and they will more than likely be back in the cellar this year. Below is the predicted order of finish for the Pac-12 South.

1. Arizona State

2. UCLA

3. USC

4. Arizona

5. Utah

6. Colorado

Pac-12 Championship

We predicted that Oregon would win the Pac-12 North and that will set up a Championship Game between them and Arizona State. That would be a wonderful game to see with plenty of offense on the field. We will call Oregon to win by a field goal if they were to meet and have a chance at making the College Football Playoff again.

Next week will wrap up our 2015 College Football Preview with the Southeastern Conference. Be sure to check that out on Tuesday (East) and Friday (West), respectively.

2015 College Football Preview: Pac-12 North Division

Oregon has been a perennial National Title contender since Chip Kelly's start in 2010 and has continued under Mark Helfrich (pictured above). (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images North America)
Oregon has been a perennial National Title contender since Chip Kelly’s start in 2010 and has continued under Mark Helfrich (pictured above). (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: Pac-12 North Division

We have reached the penultimate conference preview with the Pac-12 in focus this week. We will start with the Pac-12 North on Tuesday and finish with the Pac-12 South on Friday. The Pac-12 North is part sixteen of the Sports Enthusiasts 2015 College Football Preview. Below are the previews that have already been completed and the few that are to be completed.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Let’s get started by looking at each team in the Pac-12 North.

1. Oregon Ducks

Oregon is well known for their flashy uniforms, but they have a pretty darn good football team as well. Since 2009, when Chip Kelly was head coach, the Ducks have won at least 10 games ever year and made the National Championship twice. However, they lost both games including last year’s to Ohio State, 42-20. Mark Helfrich has continued the success started by Kelly, but can he get them to the ultimate conclusion with a National Championship?

The offense has six starters returning from a group that put up 45.4 points and 547 yards per game. Of course, Marcus Mariota is not one of the returning starters, but the Ducks do add in Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams. Adams is very much like Mariota with his ability to throw and run while knowing how to play against Pac-12 competition. At EWU, Adams faced Washington State, Oregon State, and Washington. In those three games, he beat Oregon State 49-46 and lost to the Cougars and Huskies by a combined 11 points. Royce Freeman will be back to run the ball after rushing for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns. The receiving unit returns intact with the top five all coming back. Byron Marshall had 74 catches for 1,003 yards and 6 touchdowns (ran for 392 yards and a touchdown as well), Darren Carrington had 37 catches for 704 yards and 4 touchdowns, Devon Allen caught 41 passes for 684 yards and 7 touchdowns, and Dwayne Stanford had 43 catches for 639 yards and 6 touchdowns. Returning at wide out is Bralon Addison, who missed all of 2014. Only two starters are back on the line from 2014, but Tyler Johnstone returns from a torn ACL, which basically gives them three. The drop off from Mariota will be present, but it will not be nearly as bad with Adams coming in. Expect more high-flying offensive production from Oregon in 2015.

The defense has six starters back from a group that allowed 23.6 points and 430 yards per game. The line returns two starters led by DeForest Buckner, who was a monster last year. Buckner recorded 81 tackles (tied for fourth most on team), 4 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, and 4 pass breakups as a defensive end. Three linebackers return this year in Rodney Hardrick (75 tackles, 1 sack, and 5 tackles for loss), Joe Walker (81 tackles, 1 sack, and 7 tackles for loss), and Tyson Coleman (44 tackles, 3 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss). There is just one starter back in the secondary and that is Reggie Daniels. Daniels is the top returning tackler after recording 83 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 9 pass breakups, and an interception in 2014. The defense will probably put up slightly better numbers in 2015.

Oregon opens the season with a home game against Vernon Adams’ former school in Eastern Washington. They will have a tough road trip to Michigan State in the second game before welcoming Georgia State home in the final non-conference game. In division, Oregon will face Washington State, California, and Oregon State at home while taking on Washington and Stanford on the road. Oregon will have to play Utah (home), Colorado (road), Arizona State (road), and USC (home) from the South. Once again, the Ducks are a contender for the Pac-12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.

2. Stanford Cardinal

Stanford was completely turned around under Jim Harbaugh. In 2006, the year before Harbaugh took over, the Cardinal went 1-11. By 2010, Harbaugh led Stanford to a 12-1 record including a demolition job of Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl that year. David Shaw has done a very nice job continuing that success, as he led the Cardinal to three straight double digit win seasons in 2011, 2012, and 2013. In addition, Shaw led them to three straight BCS Bowls before the bump in the road during 2014 when the Cardinal finished 8-5.

The offense has nine starters returning from a group that put up 27.2 points and 389 yards per game. Kevin Hogan will be under center again after throwing for 2,792 yards with 19 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Remound Wright had 601 yards and 11 touchdowns as the top rusher last year and he returns along with Barry Sanders Jr. (315 yards) and Christian McCaffrey (300 yards). The wide receiver group returns nearly intact except for Ty Montgomery, who led the team with 61 catches for 604 yards and 3 touchdowns. Devon Cajuste had 34 catches for 557 yards and 6 touchdowns, Austin Hooper had 40 catches for 499 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Michael Rector had 24 catches for 324 yards and 2 touchdowns. Four starters are back on the offensive line and the offense should be able to have a better year on offense.

The defense has been very good for Stanford the last five years. The “worst” season was in 2011 when they allowed 21.9 points and 338 yards per game. In 2014, the defense allowed 16.4 points and 282 yards per game with seven starters back. In 2015, only four starters return, which is the lowest number in at least 8 years. The defensive line has no starters returning, but Brennan Scarlett has transferred in from Cal. Linebacker is in much better shape than the line with two starters back. Blake Martinez is back after recording 102 tackles (#1 on team), 4.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 3 interceptions. Kevin Anderson also returns after recording 52 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 6 tackles for loss. The secondary has two starters back in Ronnie Harris (29 tackles and 5 tackles for loss) and Zach Hoffpauir (44 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 5 pass breakups). The defense is a bit of a concern and will probably not match even the “worst” defensive season on 2011. However, the defense will still be good for Stanford.

Stanford starts the season on the road at Northwestern before a home game against Central Florida. Their final non-conference game is on November 28 at home versus Notre Dame. Within their division, Stanford will face Oregon State and Washington State on the road while playing Washington, Oregon, and California at home. From the South division, the Cardinal draw USC (road), Arizona (home), UCLA (home), and Colorado (road). Stanford will probably be a win over Oregon away from the Pac-12 Championship Game and should get back to a double-digit win season in 2015.

3. California Golden Bears

Sonny Dykes will be in his third year at Cal in 2015. Both sides of the ball are trending in the right direction and the 2015 squad will be his most experienced. In 2013, Cal had just 10 returning starters and went 1-11. The number of returning starters went up to 14 last year, as did the record to 5-7. This year has 17 starters returning and will the pattern continue?

The offense went from 23 points and 454 yards per game in 2013 (five starters back) to 38.3 points and 495 yards per game in 2014 (nine starters back). There will be eight starters returning this year including all the skill positions. Jared Goff threw for 3,973 yards with 35 touchdowns and 7 interceptions and he will have all but one of his top ten receivers from 2014 to throw to. Kenny Lawler led the team with 54 catches for 701 yards and 9 touchdowns, Stephen Anderson caught 46 passes for 661 yards and 5 touchdowns, and Bryce Treggs had 52 catches for 583 yards and 6 touchdowns. Daniel Lasco is back after rushing for 1,115 yards and 12 touchdowns. The offensive line has three starters back and it would be no surprise to see the numbers go above 40 points and 500 yards per game in 2015 for Cal.

The defense allowed 45.9 points and 503 yards per game with five starters back in 2013. In 2014, the defense allowed 39.8 points and 512 yards per game with five starters back once again. For 2015, the defense has nine starters back including 12 of the top 13 tacklers from last season. The defensive line has three starters back led by Mustafa Jalil, who had 35 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss. The linebackers all return with the trio of Michael Barton (80 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 6 tackles for loss), Hardy Nickerson (69 tackles and 2 tackles for loss), and Jalen Jefferson (58 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss). Three starters return in the secondary led by Cedric Dozier (52 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, and 5 pass breakups) and Stefan McClure (50 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and an interception). Also returning from injury is Griffin Piatt, who had 40 tackles, 1 sack, 6 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions in only six games before an injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. Expect another improvement in the defense in year three of Sonny Dykes’ tenure.

California opens with home games versus Grambling and San Diego State before a stern test on the road at Texas. Within the North division, Cal will face Washington, Oregon, and Stanford on the road while playing Washington State and Oregon State at home. From the South, Cal draws Utah (road), UCLA (road), USC (home), and Arizona State (home). Cal has not made a bowl game since 2011, but that should change in 2015 with this improved team.

4. Washington State Cougars

Mike Leach was hired by Washington State late in 2011 to coach the team. Leach had previously coached at Texas Tech from 2000 to 2009 and led the Red Raiders to a bowl game each year. Leach’s first year was in 2012 and the Cougars went 3-9, but improved to 6-7 in 2013 with a bowl appearance (lost 48-45 to Colorado State). Last year, the Cougars went back down to 3-9 and 2015 must produce a better result.

Leach’s offense are known for putting up big points and 2014 was the best year under Leach for WSU. The offense put up 31.8 points and 518 yards per game with seven starters back. This year, the number of starters returning goes up by one, to eight, but quarterback is not one of them. Connor Halliday threw for 3,873 yards with 32 touchdowns and 11 touchdowns in nine games, but departs while his heir apparent Luke Falk threw for 1,859 yards with 13 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. The running game is usually not a strong suit for Leach, but the rushing attack has been poor in his three years at WSU. The best output is 53 yards per game in 2013 and was only 40 yards rushing per game in 2014. Jamal Morrow is back after leading the team with 351 yards and Gerard Wicks ran for 234 yards and 4 touchdowns. The top two wide receivers depart (combined for 184 catches for 2,455 yards and 21 touchdowns), which will hurt, but the good thing about the Air Raid offense is that receivers always do well. River Cracraft had 66 catches for 771 yards and 8 touchdowns, Dom Williams caught 43 passes for 656 yards and 9 touchdowns, and running back Jamal Morrow had 61 catches for 460 yards. Also in the mix will be Robert Lewis (41 catches for 370 yards and 2 touchdowns), Tyler Baker (27 catches for 308 yards and 2 touchdowns), and Gabe Marks (74 catches for 807 and 7 touchdowns in 2013). The entire offensive line returns intact and despite the losses of the top two receivers and quarterback, the offense has a chance at topping last year’s production.

The defense has been a liability under Leach. In 2012, they allowed 33.7 points and 426 yards per game while they gave up 32.5 points and 458 yards per game in 2013. Last year, the defense regressed by surrendering 38.6 points and 442 yards per game. This year, six starters return with one on the defensive line in Destiny Vaeao (14 tackles, 2 sacks, and 1.5 tackles for loss). Two linebackers return in Jeremiah Allison and Kache Palacio. Allison was the second leading tackler with 78 tackles and also recorded 3.5 sacks and 5 tackles for loss. Palacio had 57 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss. The secondary will have three starters back in Darius Lemora (68 tackles), Charleston White (34 tackles, 13 pass breakups, and an interception), and Taylor Taliulu (66 tackles and 4 pass breakups). The defense should improve from last year’s poor performance and could produce the best defense yet under Leach.

Washington state has an easy non-conference schedule with Portland State (home), Rutgers (road), and Wyoming (road). WSU will face California, Oregon, and Washington on the road while playing Oregon State and Stanford at home. From the South, they will take on Arizona (road), Arizona State (home), UCLA (road), and Colorado (home). The final two weeks of the season could determine if the Cougars reach a bowl game with games versus Colorado and Washington.

5. Washington Huskies

Steve Sarkisian was the head coach at Washington from 2009 through 2013, leading the Huskies to four bowl games in five seasons. He left for USC and in came Chris Petersen for the 2014 season. Petersen went 8-6 in his first year after eight years at Boise State. How will Petersen and the Huskies perform in 2015?

The offense has five starters returning from a group that put up 30.2 points and 389 yards per game. The top returning quarterback is Jeff Lindquist with 162 yards and a touchdown. He will be battling with KJ Carta-Samuels and Jake Browning to win the job. Dwyane Washington ran for 697 yards and 9 touchdowns while Lavon Coleman had 565 yards and 1 touchdown with both returning this year. The top four receivers are back led by Jaydon Mickens, who had 60 catches for 617 yards and 4 touchdowns. Also returning are John Ross (17 catches for 371 yards and 4 touchdowns), Joshua Perkins (25 catches for 315 yards and 3 touchdowns), and Dante Pettis (17 catches 259 yards and a touchdown). The offensive line has only one returning starter and the offense will have some growing pains in year two with the losses at quarterback and on the line.

The defense was solid last year allowing just 24.8 points, but giving up 411 yards per game. This year, the defense has only four starters back. The defensive line has no starters back from a unit that allowed 124 yards rushing per game. At line backer, only Travis Feeney returns after recording 60 tackles, 1 sack, 3.4 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions. The secondary is the strength this year with three starters back led by Budda Baker. Baker had 80 tackles (#4 on team), 1 sack, 6 pass breakups, and an interception. Kevin King (65 tackles and an interception) and Sidney Jones (61 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 5 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions). The defense will be much like the offense with growing pains and may not match their points per game number from 2014.

Washington opens with Boise State on the road, in a game that is sure to be fiery. After that, they will welcome both Sacramento State and Utah State to Seattle. In division, Washington faces California, Oregon, and Washington State at home while taking on Stanford and Oregon on the road. From the South, the Huskies will face USC (road), Arizona (home), Utah (home), and Arizona State (road). The Huskies will probably need an upset or two to reach a bowl game and it could come down to the regular season finale against Washington State at home to get to 6 wins.

6. Oregon State Beavers

Mike Riley was at Oregon State from 2003 through last season, but decided to move on to Nebraska. Filling the vacancy was Gary Andersen, who was previously at Utah State (26-24 record) from 2009 through 2012 and then at Wisconsin in 2013 and 2014 (19-7 record). Andersen does not inherit the best situation, but he is known for his work on defense, which will come in handy this year.

The offense has eight starters back from a group that put up 25.7 points and 394 yards per game. Sean Mannion has graduated and that leaves Seth Collins, Nick Mitchell, and Marcus McMaryion to battle it out for the top spot with none of them having thrown a pass in college. Storm Woods will be the running back after rushing for 766 yards and 5 touchdowns. Three of the top four receivers return in Victor Bolden (72 catches for 798 yards and 2 touchdowns), Jordan Villamin (35 catches for 578 yards and 6 touchdowns), and Hunter Jarmon (20 catches for 334 yards and 1 touchdown). The offensive line has four starters back as well, but the change in schemes and lack of experience at quarterback will hurt the offense.

The defense was poor the last two years of Riley’s tenure. They allowed more than 31 points and 400 yards per game in both 2013 and 2014. This year, only two starters return making the transition difficult for Andersen. Jaswha James is back after recording 16 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 tackle for loss last year while Lavonte Barnett had better stats in only four starts. Barnett recorded 18 tackles and 4.5 sacks last year. The linebackers were decimated with the top three all gone. Those three were the second, third, and fifth leading tacklers last year and the top returner is Rommel Mageo, who had 23 tackles. The secondary has only one starter back in Larry Scott (43 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and 11 pass breakups), but also have Justin Strong returning (56 tackles, 1 sack, 4 tackles for loss, and 3 pass breakups). Andersen has solid defenses, but a lot was lost this year and it may not perform better this year in the numbers.

Oregon State has Weber State (home), Michigan (road), and San Jose State (home) to start the year. In conference, OSU has Stanford and Washington at home while playing Washington State, California, and Oregon on the road. From the South, OSU will play Arizona (road), Colorado (home), Utah (home), and UCLA (home). It looks like a rough year is store for Oregon State in Andersen’s first year.

Overview

The Pac-12 North will likely come down to the Oregon at Stanford game on November 14 to determine the winner of the division. California appears to be the third best team in the division while the trio of Washington State, Washington, and Oregon State will battle for bowl eligibility and to stay out of the cellar. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Oregon

2. Stanford

3. California

4. Washington State

5. Washington

6. Oregon State

Check back on Friday to see a preview of the Pac-12 South as well as a prediction for the Pac-12 Championship Game.

2015 College Football Preview: Big 10 East

Ohio State won the 2015 College Football Playoff Championship. Can they do it again in 2015? (Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)
Ohio State won the 2015 College Football Playoff Championship. Can they do it again in 2015? (Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: Big 10 East

Part fifteen of Sports Enthusiasts’ 2015 College Football Preview takes a closer look at the Big 10 East division. We will also take a look at the Big 10 Championship game, giving a prediction of that projected contest as well. Below is a look at each of the conferences already previewed as well as the previews still to come.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Let’s take a closer look at the Big 10’s East Division.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

Urban Meyer took over in 2012 and led Ohio State to a 12-0 record, but the Buckeyes were not eligible for the postseason. In 2013, the Buckeyes were on their way to the National Championship, but lost to Michigan State in the Big 10 Championship game and then also lost to Clemson in the Orange Bowl to fall to 12-2. In 2014, Ohio State suffered a shock loss at home to Virginia Tech in the second game before reeling off 13 straight wins including the inaugural College Football Playoff Championship. 2015 looks like more of the same for Ohio State: excellence.

Ohio State will have seven starters back on offense from a unit that put up 44.8 points and 512 yards per game. Of course, the trio of JT Barrett, Cardale Jones, and Braxton Miller will be back with Miller moving from quarterback to wide receiver. Barrett threw for 2,834 yards with 34 touchdown and 10 interceptions before Jones came in for the injured Barrett and threw for 860 yards with 7 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in the final three games. Ezekiel Elliott is returning at running back after rushing for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns. Most of the receivers return sans Devin Smith (33 catches for 931 yards and 12 touchdowns). Michael Thomas (54 catches for 788 yards and 9 touchdowns), Jalin Marshall (38 catches for 499 yards and 6 touchdowns), and Dontre Wilson (21 catches for 300 yards and 3 touchdowns) are back along with Miller moving over from QB. The offensive line has four starters back and this offense will continue to be one of the best in the nation.

The defense also returns seven starters from a group that allowed 22 points and 342 yards per game. Joey Bosa returns on the line after recording 53 tackles, 13.5 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for loss while being named 1st Team All-American last year. He will miss the opening game against Virginia Tech along with Jalin Marshall. Joshua Perry (124 tackles, 3 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss) and Darron Lee (81 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 9 tackles for loss) return at linebacker after those two were the #1 and #3 tacklers last year respectively. The secondary has three starters back led by Vonn Bell (92 tackles, 6 pass breakups, and 6 interceptions) and Tyvis Powell (76 tackles, 4 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions). The defense will be solid once again and could improve on the numbers they allowed last year.

Ohio State opens up with Virginia Tech on the road and will surely be looking to exact a measure of revenge. Their final three non-conference games are at home against Hawaii, Northern, Illinois, and Western Michigan. The Buckeyes will face Indiana, Rutgers, and Michigan on the road while playing Maryland, Penn State, and Michigan State at home. From the West, Ohio State has Minnesota (home) and Illinois (road). Ohio State is clearly the team to beat not only in the East, but all of the Big 10. Ohio State has an excellent chance at running the table and making it back-to-back National Championships in 2015.

2. Michigan State Spartans

Since 2010, Michigan State has been one of the elite teams in the Big 10 with four season of at least 11 wins. 2013 was the best year under Mark Dantonio when they went 13-1 winning both the Big 10 and the Rose Bowl that season. 2014 was another very good year with MSU going 11-2 including that incredible come from behind win against Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. What will 2015 bring?

The offense has seven starters back led by quarterback Connor Cook. Cook threw for 3,214 yards with 24 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. The trio of Madre London, LJ Scott, and Gerald Holmes will look to replace the production of Jeremy Langford (1,522 yards and 22 touchdowns). The top two receivers are gone, but returning are Macgarrett Kings (29 catches for 404 yards and a touchdown), Josiah Price (26 catches for 374 yards and 6 touchdowns), and Aaron Burbridge (29 catches for 358 yards and a touchdown). RJ Shelton is coming over from running back after grabbing 16 passes for 173 yards and 2 touchdowns. The offensive line has four starters back as well. The offense put up 43 points and 501 yards of offense last year and probably will not match those numbers. However, they can still put up plenty of offense with Cook commanding the offense.

The defense has seven starters back from a group that allowed 21.5 points and 316 yards per game. The line has three starters back in Lawrence Thomas (30 tackles and 3 sacks), Joel Heath (29 tackles and 2.5 sacks), and Shilique Calhoun (39 tackles, 8 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss). The linebacking unit has Ed Davis (48 tackles, 7 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss) and Darien Harris (48 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and an interception) back. The secondary has Darian Hicks and RJ Williamson (59 tackles and 3 interceptions) back to help against the pass. The numbers Michigan State allowed in 2014 were pretty good and could improve even more in 2015.

The Spartans have Western Michigan on the road to start the season before a big game at home against Oregon. They round out non-conference play with Air Force and Central Michigan at home as well. In conference, they will face Rutgers, Michigan, and Ohio State on the road while playing Indiana, Maryland, and Penn State at home. From the East, MSU has to play Purdue (home) and Nebraska (road). Michigan State has a chance to win the East if they can upset Ohio State on November 21 along with everything else falling in place. At the least, Michigan State should see another 10+ win season under Dantonio.

3. Michigan Wolverines

Brady Hoke came to Michigan in 2011 with a lot of hype. In his first year, he seemed to validate the hype by going 11-2 and leading Michigan to a Sugar Bowl victory. The next three seasons were all downhill for the Wolverines as they went 8-5 in 2012 to 7-6 in 2013 to 5-7 in 2014, which ended Hoke’s tenure at Michigan. Enter Jim Harbaugh for 2015 and he has created a lot of excitement as well as the constant headlines without coaching a game at UM. What could the actual football season produce then?

The offense for Michigan has eight starters returning from a group that produced a lackluster 20.9 points and 333 yards per game. There will be a battle for the quarterback duties between Iowa transfer Jake Rudock (2,436 yards with 16 touchdowns and 5 interceptions last year) and Shane Morris (128 yards and 3 interceptions in backup duty). The running back trio of De’Veon Smith (519 yards and 6 touchdowns), Derrick Green (471 yards and 3 touchdowns), and Drake Johnson (361 yards and 4 touchdowns) will be joined by USC transfer Ty Isaac (236 yards in 2013). Devin Funchess has departed, but the next four receivers all return. Amara Darboh had 36 catches for 473 yards and 2 touchdowns, Jake Butt had 21 catches for 211 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Jehu Chesson won 14 catches for 154 yards. There are four starters back on the offensive line and the Michigan offense should be able to produce much better this year compared to 2014.

The defense has seven starters back from a unit that allowed 22.4 points and 311 yards in a solid year. The line has two starters back from a unit that allowed 118 rushing yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry. The top returning linebacker this year will be Joe Bolden after recording 102 tackles, 2 sacks, and 2 tackles for loss last year. The secondary will be strong with three returning starters and Stanford transfer Wayne Lyons. Lyons had 124 tackles in 22 starts in his three years at Stanford. Jarrod Wilson will be safety again this year after recording 50 tackles last year, which was good enough for third on the team. The defense will be solid once again, even in Harbaugh’s first season.

Michigan has a tough non-conference schedule with the opening game against Utah on the road before three straight home games versus Oregon State, UNLV, and BYU. In conference, they will play Maryland, Indiana, and Penn State on the road and take on Michigan State, Rutgers, and Ohio State at home. From the East, Michigan faces Northwestern (home) and Minnesota (road). Harbaugh should be able to lead Michigan back to a bowl game and might have a chance to reach 10 wins with a victory in the bowl game.

4. Penn State Nittany Lions

Bill O’Brien took over in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and did quite well given the sanctions levied against Penn State. He led PSU to back-to-back winning seasons going 8-4 in 2012 and 7-5 in 2013. The Nittany Lions were not eligible for a bowl either season due to the scandal and O’Brien left to take over the Houston Texans in the NFL. James Franklin became head coach in 2014 and led PSU to a 7-6 record and one point win in the Pinstripe bowl over Boston College.

The offense will have eight starters back from a group that put up 20.6 points and 335 yards per game. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw for 2,977 yards with 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions while being considered by some as the top prospect of the 2016 NFL Draft. Akeel Lynch ran for 678 yards and 4 touchdowns despite only starting two games last year. Three of the top four receivers are returning led by DaeSean Hamilton, who had 82 catches for 899 yards and 2 touchdowns as a freshman. Geno Lewis (55 catches for 751 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Chris Godwin (26 catches for 338 yards and 2 touchdowns) return as well. With four starters back on the offensive line, the offense should perform better in 2015 with a year of Franklin’s schemes under their belts.

The defense was excellent in 2014 allowing just 18.6 points and 279 yards per game. They now return seven starters from last year including the second through sixth leading tacklers. The line has Austin Johnson (49 tackles, 1 sack, and 5 tackles for loss) and Anthony Zettel (42 tackles, 8 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, and 3 interceptions) back from a unit that allowed only 100 yards rushing per game and 2.9 yards per carry. Two are back at linebacker led by Nyeem Wartman, who had 75 tackles (#2 on team). They do lose Mike Hull, who was fantastic in 2014 with 140 tackles, 2 sacks, and 8.5 tackles for loss. The secondary will have three starters back in Trevor Williams (27 tackles, 5 pass breakups, 2 interceptions), Jordan Lucas (58 tackles, 2 sacks, and 9 pass breakups), and Marcus Allen (58 tackles, 1 sack, and 3 pass breakups) to make this one of the better secondaries in the Big 10. The defense could match last year’s numbers, but at the very least, should be solid again.

Penn State opens with a road game at Temple before facing Buffalo, San Diego State, and Army at home to close out the non-conference slate. Rutgers, Indiana, Michigan will be coming to State College while PSU will travel to play Ohio State, Maryland (Baltimore), and Michigan State. From the West, Penn State will take on Illinois (home) and Northwestern (road). The Nittany Lions should be better in 2015 and could have a chance to win 10 games with an upset or two.

5. Indiana Hoosiers

Kevin Wilson has been in charge at Indiana since 2011 and has yet to make a bowl game. He has an overall record of 14-34 and his best chance of making a bowl game was in 2013 when the Hoosiers went 5-7. The offense has not been much of an issue under Wilson while the defense is the Achilles heel in his tenure thus far. Will the defense be good enough to reach 6-6 in 2015?

The offense has seven starters back after putting up 25.1 points and 405 yards per game. Gone is Tevin Coleman, who ran for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns. Replacing Coleman is UAB transfer Jordan Howard, who ran for 1,587 and 13 touchdowns in 2014. He probably will not match Coleman’s output, but he is quite the pick up to replace him. Nate Sudfeld started the first six games throwing for 1,151 yards with 6 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, but suffered a shoulder injury that knocked him out for the year. Zander Diamont came in to start the last six and threw for 515 yards with 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions. He was also more mobile than Sudfeld and ran for 133 yards and 2 touchdowns. Receiver is a bit of a concern with the top returning target in J-Shun Harris. Harris had only 18 catches for 168 yards and 2 touchdowns. Camion Patrick has transferred from junior college while Dominique Booth (8 catches for 70 yards) and Simmie Cobbs (7 catches for 114 yards) could step up. There are four starters back on the offensive line to provide ample time for the receivers and running backs. The offense should be able to improve this season with a healthy quarterback.

The defense has five starters back from a unit that allowed 32.8 points and 434 yards per game. Those numbers were the best under Wilson in his tenure, but will need to get better if Indiana is to make a bowl game this year. The line has three starters back led by Nick Mangieri, who had 37 tackles, 2 sacks, and an interception. TJ Simmons is the lone linebacker returning after recording 72 tackles (#2 on team), 2 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss. The only returning member of the secondary is Antonio Allen, who led the team with 74 tackles, but also had 1 sack, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions. The defense will probably have similar numbers to last year, which puts the burden on the offense.

Indiana opens the year with three home games against Southern Illinois, Florida International, and Western Kentucky. Their final non-conference game is on the road at Wake Forest, but they could be 4-0 heading into conference play. In division play, Indiana has Ohio State, Rutgers, and Michigan at home while facing Penn State, Michigan State, and Maryland on the road. From the West, Indiana has to play Iowa (home) and Purdue (road). If Indiana goes 4-0 in non-conference play, they have an excellent chance at reaching 6-6 by winning two of three against Rutgers, Maryland, and Purdue.

6. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Kyle Flood started at Rutgers in 2012 when they were still in the Big East. He went 9-4 in this first year, then dropped down to 6-7 in 2013 when Rutgers was in The American. 2014 was the first season of Rutgers’ Big 10 career and it ended well with an 8-5 record and a 40-21 dusting of North Carolina in the Quick Lane bowl. 2015 could a rough year for Rutgers after early success in the Big 10.

The offense will have five starters back from a unit that put up 26.7 points and 390 yards per game. Quarterback will most likely go to Chris Laviano, who threw for only 107 yards with 1 interception in backup duty behind Gary Nova last year. There is a plethora of running backs returning with the top five rushers from 2014 all back. Paul James started the first four games and rushed for 363 yards with 5 touchdowns, but was injured and missed the rest of the year. Desmon Peoples was the top rusher with 447 yards and 3 touchdowns while Josh Hicks ran for 440 yards and 2 touchdowns. Robert Martin added 434 yards and 7 touchdowns while Justin Goodwin had 328 yards and a touchdown. The top receiver returns for Rutgers in Leonte Carroo, who caught 55 passes for 1,086 yards and 10 touchdowns. Janarion Grant also returns after having 25 catches for 312 yards. There are three starters back on the line and there is plenty of pieces in place for the offense to match last year’s numbers.

The defense has slumped the last two years for Rutgers. In 2013, the defense gave up 29.8 points and 413 yards per game with only four starters back. Last year, the defense did worse by allowing 30.2 points and 443 yards per game with seven starters back. There will be five starters back this season with two residing on the defensive line. Darius Hamilton had 45 tackles, 6 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss and Djwany Mera had 18 tackles and 1.5 sacks last year will lead the line this year. Quentin Gause is one of two returning linebackers after recording 72 tackles, 1 sack, and 6 tackles for loss. The other is Steve Longa, who led the team with 102 tackles and also recorded 2 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. Just one starter is back in the secondary and that is Nadir Barnwell. He had 29 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, and 4 pass breakups last year. The defense could struggle again in 2015 for the third straight year.

Rutgers opens the season with Norfolk State and Washington State at home. Their non-conference schedule also includes Kansas at home and a road trip to Army on November 21. Rutgers will face Penn State, Indiana, and Michigan on the road while playing Michigan State, Ohio State, and Maryland at home. From the West, Rutgers has to play Wisconsin (road) and Nebraska (home) in one of the toughest draws. Rutgers will need a couple of upsets to reach another bowl game in 2015.

7. Maryland Terrapins

Randy Edsall came to Maryland from Connecticut in 2011 after leading Connecticut to a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2010. It has been a steady improvement under Edsall with the Terps going 2-10 in 2011 and 4-8 in 2012. The past two seasons have produced identical 7-6 records. What does 2015 have in store for Edsall and company?

The offense has six starters back from a group that produced 28.5 points and 342 yards per game. Caleb Rowe will take over the quarterback duties. He threw for 489 yards with 5 touchdowns and 4 interceptions last year, but does have starting experience dating back to the 2013 campaign. The top rusher last year was quarterback CJ Brown, who had 539 yards, but he has departed. Brandon Ross ran for 419 yards and 4 touchdowns while Wes Brown had 356 yards and 6 touchdowns. They will need to be much more productive in 2015 if the offense is to perform better. Stefon Diggs was the top receiver the last few years, but he has gone on to the NFL. Marcus Leak is the top returning receiver with 20 catches for 297 yards and 3 touchdowns. Jacquille Veil had 16 catches for 230 yards and a touchdown while Amba Etta-Tawo had 10 grabs for 22 yards and 1 touchdown. The offensive line has three starters back, but the losses may hurt the Terps this year.

The defense has only four starters back this season. Last year’s group allowed 30.2 points and 436 yards per game with nine starters returning. Yannick Ngakoue is back on the line after recording 37 tackles, 6 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for loss. The linebacking unit was decimated with no starters returning. Jermaine Carter is the top linebacker returning after recording 27 tackles in 2014. The secondary is the strength of the defense with three starters back including Sean Davis at safety. He had 115 tackles, 1 sack, 3 tackles for loss, and 8 pass breakups last season. Despite the strong secondary, the defense will have some issues with the lack of experience in the front seven.

Maryland opens the season with Richmond, Bowling Green, and South Florida at home before traveling to face West Virginia on the road. They will play Michigan, Penn State (Baltimore), and Indiana at home while going on the road to take on Ohio State, Michigan State, and Rutgers. From the West, they will have to play Iowa (road) and Wisconsin (home). Maryland will get close to bowl eligibility, but may have to settle for a rebuilding year with the lack of experience in 2015.

Overview

The Big 10 East appears to be fairly easy to discern. Ohio State is clearly the top team while Michigan State is the only challenger to them. Michigan and Penn State are in the next tier while Indiana, Rutgers, and Maryland will battle to stay out of the cellar. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Ohio State

2. Michigan State

3. Michigan

4. Penn State

5. Indiana

6. Rutgers

7. Maryland

Big 10 Championship

Wisconsin was predicted as the winner of the Big 10 West division earlier this week, which sets up a rematch of 2014’s Big 10 Championship Game. In a game between Wisconsin and Ohio State, we will go with Ohio State to win again and to make the College Football Playoff.

The Pac-12 Conference will be previewed next week with the North Division on Tuesday and the South Division on Friday.

2015 College Football Preview: Big 10 West

Corey Clement has big shoes to fill in replacing Melvin Gordon while Wisconsin has been to three of the first four Big 10 Championship Games. (Mike McGinnis/Getty Images North America)
Corey Clement has big shoes to fill in replacing Melvin Gordon while Wisconsin has been to three of the first four Big 10 Championship Games. (Mike McGinnis/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: Big 10 West

Part fourteen of Sports Enthusiasts’ 2015 College Football Preview delves into the Big 10’s West Division. There are only three conferences left in the preview series with the Pac-12 and SEC still a few weeks down the road. Below is the schedule of conference previews completed and those still to come.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

The Big 10 West Division is broken down below.

1. Wisconsin Badgers

Bret Bielema bolted Wisconsin after the 2012 season to go to Arkansas while Gary Andersen came in for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He led the Badgers to a 9-4 record in 2013 before a double digit win season in 2014 including a 59-0 destruction at the hands of Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship. He too bolted Madison and went West to Oregon State. Paul Chryst returns to his alma mater where he played quarterback from 1986 to 1988 and was the offensive coordinator from 2005 through 2011. He was also the head coach at Pittsburgh from 2012 t0 2014.

The offense was very good under Andersen where they had nearly identical output over his two years. In 2013, they put up 34.8 points and 481 yards per game and it was 34.6 points and 469 yards in 2014. The offense has five starters back with Joel Stave not having to worry about another QB. Stave threw for 1,350 yards with 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Melvin Gordon is gone after his monstrous season with 2,587 yards with 29 touchdowns, but Corey Clement is willing to try and fill the void. Clement had 949 yards and 9 touchdowns rushing while Dare Ogunbowale had 193 yards and a touchdown on only 34 carries. The go to guy last year, Alex Erickson, is back after recording 55 catches for 772 yards and 3 touchdowns. Troy Fumagalli caught 14 passes for 187 yards last year and a second wide receiver will need to develop in 2015. The offensive line also has only two starters returning, but the quarterback numbers should be better with Chryst in charge. The loss of Gordon will hurt, but the offense should be solid even with Chryst coming in.

The defense for Wisconsin is constantly solid. Between 2009 and 2014, the defense has not yielded more than 22 points and 325 yards per game. The defense had only 3 starters back in 2014 and allowed 20.8 points and 294 yards per game. There are six starters back including most of the secondary. Chikwe Obasih had 21 tackles and 1.5 sacks in seven starts. The depth is also better after plaguing them the past two seasons. The linebacker unit has the two outside ‘backers returning in Vince Biegel (56 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 9 tackles for loss) and Joe Schobert (69 tackles, 3 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 7 pass breakups). The secondary has three starters back led by Michael Caputo. Caputo was the top tackler last year with 106 stops while also recording 1 sack, 5 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, and an interception. Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton will be at the cornerback spots, but need to interception more passes after those two failed to record any in 2014. Tanner McEvoy has also moved to safety after splitting time at quarterback and safety in 2014.

Wisconsin opens with a daunting game in Arlington, Texas against Alabama that will surely test them to their highest capability. After that, it is much easier with the trio of Miami (OH), Troy, and Hawaii all coming to Madison. In conference, Wisconsin faces Iowa, Purdue, and Northwestern at home while playing Nebraska, Illinois, and Minnesota on the road. From the East division, the Badgers take on Rutgers (home) and Maryland (road). The Badgers will surely make a bowl game in 2015 and can expect to be the team to beat for the West, but they have their question marks.

2. Northwestern Wildcats

Pat Fitzgerald did something that only Bob Voigts was able to do: win a bowl game. Voigts won the 1949 Rose Bowl while Fitzgerald won the 2012 Gator Bowl after losing the previous four bowl games. Since that 2012 season, Northwestern has not been back to a bowl game after back-to-back 5-7 seasons that have been filled with injuries. 2015 must result in a bowl game for the Wildcats and Fitzgerald.

The offense sputtered last year after putting up 23 points and 353 yards per game despite eight starters back. This year, the offense will have six starters back, but one of them will not be at quarterback. That may not be a bad thing as Trevor Siemian only threw for 2,214 yards with 7 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Zack Oliver threw for 367 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, but he will be battling with Clayton Thorson and Matt Alviti for the starting job. Justin Jackson is back after a stellar freshman season. Despite only starting five games, Jackson ran for 1,187 yards with 10 touchdowns while also catching 22 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown. There is plenty of talent back at wide receiver with Dan Vitale leading the way. He had 40 catches for 402 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cameron Dickerson (24 catches for 318 yards and a touchdown) and Miles Shuler (23 catches for 190 yards) back as well. The biggest returner is Christian Jones, who had a solid 2013 season with 668 yards, but missed all of 2014. The offensive line has three starters back and the entire offense should be able to perform better this year.

The defense was decent in 2014 with seven starters back, giving up 25.2 points and 384 yards per game. Eight starters are back in 2015, the most for Fitzgerald since 2009 (gave up 24.5 points and 350 yards per game). The entire defensive line is back led by Dean Lowry, who had 41 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 8 pass breakups. The linebacking unit is the worry for Northwestern with only Anthony Walker returning (51 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions). The secondary is another strength with three starters back. Traveon Henry had 73 tackles (#2 on team) and 2.5 tackles for loss while Matthew Harris had 70 tackles (#3 on team), 3.5 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense should be solid once again for Northwestern and should improve on the numbers the allowed last season.

Northwestern does not have an easy start to the season with Stanford coming to town followed by Eastern Illinois. A road trip against Duke comes before their final non-conference game against Ball State at home. In conference, the Wildcats will face Minnesota, Iowa, and Purdue at home while taking on Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. They also face Illinois in Chicago on the final weekend in November. From the East, they will have the pleasure of facing Michigan (road) and Penn State (home) in two tough games. All around, Northwestern should be better in 2015 and could have a chance to take the division with a win over Wisconsin (Nov. 21).

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska was led by Bo Pelini starting in 2008 and going through 2014. During that time, Pelini led Nebraska to at least 9 wins each year including three 10 win seasons. Pelini, however, did not make a BCS or Group of Five bowl in that time and was let go after the 2014 season. Mike Riley comes over from Oregon State after 15 years there and only once led the Beavers to at least 10 wins (2006).

The offense has six starters back from a group that put up 37.8 points and 452 yards of offense per game. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong threw for 2,695 yards with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while also rushing for 705 yards and 6 touchdowns as the teams second leading rusher. Ameer Abdullah will not be back, which leaves Imani Cross (384 yards and 5 touchdowns) and Terrell Newby (297 yards and 5 touchdowns) as the top returning running backs. Nearly all of the receivers return led by Jordan Westerkamp (44 catches for 747 yards and 5 touchdowns) and De’Mornay Pierson-El (23 catches for 321 yards and 4 touchdowns). The offensive line has two starters back at the tackles. The offense will probably not put up the same numbers as they did last year with a new coach and new schemes.

The defense has six starters back from a unit that allowed 26.4 points and 384 yards per game. Three starters are back on the defensive line that gave up 178 yards and 4.7 yards per carry last year. Greg McMullen (4 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and 4 pass breakups), Maliek Collins (45 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 9.5 tackles for loss), and Vincent Valentine (45 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 pass breakups) are the returners. David Santos is the lone returning linebacker after recording 50 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 1 interception. The secondary has two starters back led by Nathan Gerry (#1 tackler), who had 88 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, 4 pass breakups, and 5 interceptions en route to making the 2nd Team Big 10 squad. There may be some growing pains in 2015, but the numbers should not fluctuate too much.

Nebraska opens with BYU and South Alabama at home before traveling to face Miami (FL) on the road and getting Southern Miss at home. The Cornhuskers face Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue on the road while playing Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Iowa at home. From the East, Nebraska will take on Michigan State (home) and Rutgers (road). Nebraska should be in a bowl game in 2015 and could even make the Big 10 Championship Game with a few stumbles and surprises.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini

Ron Zook was in charge of Illinois from 2005 through 2011 and led the Illini to three bowl games including the 2007 Rose Bowl. Zook was let go before the 2011 bowl game that Illinois won 20-14 over UCLA. Tim Beckman came in starting with the 2012 season and went 2-10 followed by a 4-8 record in 2013. The Illini had to make a bowl game in 2014 for Beckman to keep his job and they did, but lost to Louisiana Tech 35-18. 2015 is another chance for Illinois to make a bowl game.

The offense put up 25.9 points and 367 yards per game in 2014 with Wes Lunt taking over at quarterback. Lunt had injury issues throughout the season while finishing with 1,763 with 14 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Josh Ferguson is returning at running back after a sub par year with only 735 yards and 8 touchdowns. Ferguson also was the team’s third leading receiver with 50 catches for 427 yards and 2 touchdowns. Mike Dudek led the team in receiving as a freshman in 2014 with 76 catches for 1,038 yards and 6 touchdowns, but tore his ACL in April. He status for 2015 is still up in the air. Geronimo Allison (41 catches for 598 yards and 5 touchdowns), Malik Turner (25 catches for 256 yards and a touchdown), and Justin Hardee (19 catches for 240 yards and a touchdown) all return in case Dudek is unable to go. Three starters are back on the offensive line to bring the total up to eight for the offense. A healthy Lunt will mean higher numbers for the Illini offense even if Dudek is out for the year.

Defense has been an issue for Illinois under Beckman, as the unit has not allowed less than 32 points per game in his tenure. Last year, the defense gave up 34 points and 456 yards per game with seven starters back. That same number is back this year with Jihad Ward and Rob Bain back on the line. Ward had 51 tackles, 3 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss last year. Two linebackers return in Mason Monheim and TJ Neal, which is good news for Illinois. Monheim had 111 tackles (#1 on team), 1 sack, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions while Neal had 98 tackles (#4 on team) and 6.5 tackles for loss. The secondary has three starters back including Taylor Barton, who had 100 tackles (#3 on team). V’Angelo Bentley is back in the secondary as well, but he will also be utilized in the return game. The defense should improve in 2015 with seven starters back.

Illinois opens with home games against Kent State and Western Illinois before traveling to face North Carolina on the road. They close out the non-conference portion of their schedule against Middle Tennessee at home. Within their division, Illinois will play Nebraska and Wisconsin at home while facing Northwestern in Chicago. They also play Iowa, Purdue, and Minnesota on the road. From the East, the Illini play Penn State (road) and Ohio State (home), which is a tough draw. There is enough offense and defense on this Illinois squad to make a second straight bowl game under Beckman.

5. Iowa Hawkeyes

Kirk Ferentz is entering his 17th season at Iowa. In that time, Iowa has 11 winning season and four season with at least 10 wins. Since going 11-2 in 2009, however, Iowa has not reached that success with their best recording being 8-5 in both 2010 and 2013. The pressure may be on Ferentz to get Iowa back to double digit wins sooner rather than later.

The offense will return five starters from a group that put up 28.2 points and 400 yards per game. CJ Beathard is taking over at quarterback for the now transferred Jake Rudock (went to Michigan). Beathard threw for 645 yards with 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions while also not having Mark Weisman (812 yards and 16 touchdowns). Jordan Canzeri (494 yards), Akrum Wadley (186 yards and a touchdown), Jonathan Parker (141 yards and a touchdown), LeShun Daniels (49 yards and a touchdown), and CJ Hilliard will all see some looks at the running back spot. Tevaun Smith (43 catches for 596 yards and 3 touchdowns), Jake Duzey (36 catches for 392 yards and 3 touchdowns), and Matt VandeBerg (14 catches for 256 yards and 1 touchdown) are back. The line has three starters back while the offense could put up similar numbers in 2015 as they did last year.

Last year’s defense was not as effective as an Iowa defense usually is. They gave up 25.6 points and 344 yards per game with only five starters back. The number of starters returning increases by two, to seven, which is good news. Drew Ott (57 tackles, 8 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and an interception) and Nate Meier (57 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss) are back to anchor the defensive end positions. Bo Bower and Josey Jewell are the two starters returning at linebacker while the secondary has three starters back. Jordan Lomax will be at one of the safety spots after recording 92 tackles, 6 pass breakups, and an interception last year. 2015 should see Iowa’s defense improve.

Iowa opens the season against Illinois State at home before facing in-state rival Iowa State on the road. The non-conference schedule ends with Pittsburgh and North Texas both coming to Iowa City. Iowa will face Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Nebraska on the road while playing Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue at home. From the East, Iowa has Maryland (home) and Indiana (road) in two winnable games. Iowa should be back in a bowl game this year, but will that be enough to keep Ferentz around another year?

6. Purdue Boilermakers

Darrell Hazell came in from Kent State in 2013 and had a rough first year. The Boilermakers went 1-11 with their lone win against FCS Indiana State in a game they only won 20-14. The offense (14.9 points and 345 yards per game) and defense (38 points and 460 yards allowed per game) were dreadful. 2014 was a very good step in the right direction with a 3-9 record and 2015 should continue that trend.

The offense in 2014 had 8 starters back and shot up to 23.8 points and 345 yards per game. There are eight starters back again in 2015 with the quarterback position in the air between freshmen David Blough and Elijah Sindelar and Austin Appleby (1,449 yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions). Running back is not settled with DJ Knox, Keyante Green (199 yards), David Yancey, and Markell Jones all having a chance to win the top duties. Danny Anthrop is back as the top wide receiver after grabbing 38 passes for 616 yards and 4 touchdowns. The offensive line has all the starters back, which is great news for whoever wins the quarterback and running back battles. The offense should be better in 2015 with even better numbers than last year.

The defense was awful in 2013 by giving up 38 points and 460 yards per game. Year two was better with the defense allowing 31.7 points and 416 yards per game. Seven starters return in 2015 including the second through fifth top tacklers from last year. Ryan Watson (17 tackles, 4 sacks, 1.5 tackes for loss) and Jake Replogle (40 tackles, 3 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for loss) return on the line that improved from 235 rushing yards allowed per game in 2013 to 192 yards per game in 2014. That number should drop in 2015. The strength of the defense is at linebacker with the top three starters back. Ja’Whaun Bentley (76 tackles; #2 on team), Jimmy Herman (56 tackles, #4 on team), and Danny Ezechukwu (43 tackles; #8 on team) all back after starting last year. The secondary has three starters back led by Anthony Brown and Frankie Williams at the corner spots. Like the offense, the defense should improve in year three of Hazell’s tenure.

Purdue opens the season on the road at Marshall in a tough game before facing Indiana State, Virginia Tech, and Bowling Green at home. In their division, Purdue will play Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois at home while facing Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Iowa on the road. From the East, they will have to play Michigan State (road) and Indiana (home). Purdue is going in the right direction and will probably need two upsets to reach a bowl game.

7. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Jerry Kill has been at Minnesota since 2011 and has made them into a gritty team that is not easy to defeat. After going 3-9 in his first year, the team improved to 6-7 in 2012 and lost by a field goal, 34-31, to Texas Tech in the bowl game. 2013 saw them finish 8-5 and they did the same in 2014 as they had a chance to win the Big 10 West in the final week against Wisconsin. 2015 will be an interesting test for Minnesota and Kill.

The offense for Minnesota is run-based and will have five starters back in 2015. Mitch Leidner threw for 1,798 yards with 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions while rushing for 452 yards and 10 touchdowns. Backup Chris Streveler ran for 235 yards and 1 touchdown as well. David Cobb has exited after rushing for 1,626 yards and 13 touchdowns leaving a big void at running back. Berkley Edwards (140 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Rodrick Williams (114 yards and 3 touchdowns) will be vying to start at running back. Top target Maxx Williams (36 catches for 569 yards and 8 touchdowns) is gone as well, leaving KJ Maye as the top wide receiver. Maye had 16 catches for 298 yards and a touchdown as the #2 receiver. The offensive line has three starters back, but it will probably be tough for the Gophers to match last year’s production of 28.4 points and 357 yards per game with Cobb and Williams gone.

The defense has been solid for Minnesota the last three years. In 2014, the defense gave up 24.2 points and 368 yards per game and returns seven starters from that group. Theiren Cockran (23 tackles, 4 sacks, and 3 tackles for loss) and Steven Richardson (23 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss) will be teaming up with the Ekpe brothers of Scott and Hendrick. De’Vondre Campbell (75 tackles, 2.5sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and an interception) and Jack Lynn (57 tackles, 1 sack, and 6 tackles for loss) will be the returning linebackers. In the secondary, three starters are back led by Eric Murray at corner. Murray had 69 tackles, 7 pass breakups, and an interception last year. The defense should be solid once again for Minnesota.

Minnesota opens with TCU at home before facing Colorado State on the road. Kent State and Ohio both travel to Minneapolis to close out the non-conference slate. In division, Minnesota will play Northwestern, Purdue, and Iowa on the road while taking on Nebraska, Illinois, and Wisconsin at home. From the East, Minnesota draws Michigan (home) and Ohio State (road). It will be a challenging year for Minnesota if the offense sputters and will need a couple of upsets to make a bowl game, but they are more than capable of getting those upsets.

Overview

The Big 10’s West division is quite the conundrum with every team having questions. Wisconsin has a new coach and lost a star in Melvin Gordon while Northwestern has some offensive worries. Nebraska is in the same boat as Wisconsin with a new coach and lost Ameer Abdullah. Illinois has worries on defense while Iowa is constantly underachieving. Purdue is still learning Hazell’s system and Minnesota lost a lot of offensive production in David Cobb and Maxx Williams.

We will go with Wisconsin to win the division, but Northwestern or Nebraska could also finish on top. Illinois is likely to make noise with a more veteran team along with Iowa. Purdue and Minnesota will both be close to bowl eligibility and could easily finish higher than predicted, especially the Gophers. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Wisconsin

2. Northwestern

3. Nebraska

4. Illinois

5. Iowa

6. Purdue

7. Minnesota

Check back on Friday for a preview of the Big 10 East Division as well as a look at the Big 10 Championship Game prediction.

2015 College Football Preview: ACC Atlantic

Jimbo Fisher has revitalized Florida State. Can he keep the good times rolling in 2015? (Stacy Revere/Getty Images North America)
Jimbo Fisher has revitalized Florida State. Can he keep the good times rolling in 2015? (Stacy Revere/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: ACC Atlantic

We are taking an in-depth look at the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic Division after looking at the Coastal Division on Tuesday. The Atlantic looks competitive, just like the Coastal division, with any one of four teams having a chance. Below is the schedule of previews completed and those still to come.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Let’s take a closer look at the seven teams in the ACC Atlantic.

1. Clemson Tigers

Dabo Swinney took over in 2009 and has done a wonderful job for Clemson. He has led them to a bowl game each year in charge, but the last few years have been excellent. The Tigers have won at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons, won the ACC Championship in 2011, and been to two Orange Bowls. Will 2015 be more of the same?

The offense has seven starters back including the big pieces on offense. Deshaun Watson was injured last year, but managed to throw for 1,466 yards and 2 touchdowns while also rushing for 200 yards and 5 touchdowns. Wayne Gallman is back to run the ball after rushing for 769 yards and 4 touchdowns with CJ Davidson (248 yards and 3 touchdowns), Adam Choice (218 yards and 1 touchdown), and Tyshon Dye (151 yards and 2 touchdowns) all back as well. The top three receivers return led by Mike Williams (57 catches for 1,030 yards and 6 touchdowns) and Artavis Scott (76 catches for 965 yards and 8 touchdowns). Three starters are gone from the offensive line. Clemson put up 30.8 points and 408 yards per game in 2014 and they should best those numbers with Watson healthy this year.

The worry for Clemson is on defense where only three starters are back after allowing 16.7 points and 261 yards per game in 2014. The defensive line was ravaged by losses with no starters back. Shaq Lawson recorded 34 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for loss last year in a back-up role. The line is a big worry this year. Linebacker will have Ben Boulware back after recording 40 tackles, 1 sack, 4 tackles for loss, and 1 interception. The secondary has three starters back led by Jayron Kearse, who had 60 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, 5 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense is less experienced and they will not match last year’s incredible numbers, but will still be formidable.

Clemson opens the season with Wofford and Appalachian State coming to town before they begin ACC play. The other two non-conference opponents are much tougher against Notre Dame at home and South Carolina on the road. Clemson has to face Louisville, North Carolina State, and Syracuse on the road while taking on Boston College, Florida State, and Wake Forest at home. They also draw Georgia Tech (home) and Miami (road) from the Coastal, but they can win both of those games. Clemson is picked to win the ACC Atlantic, but their margin for error is small.

2. North Carolina State Wolfpack

Dave Doeren came to North Carolina State in 2013 after two season at Northern Illinois. Doeren led the Wolfpack to a 3-9 record, but made a big jump last year to 8-5. Doeren’s coaching has clearly been effective in both the win column and the numbers on paper. 2015 is the third year for Doeren and could lead to a surprise.

The offense went from 22.8 points and 404 yards per game in 2013 to 30.2 points and 409 yards offense per game in 2014. There are seven starters back in 2015 (same number as 2014) including at the skill positions. Jacoby Brissett threw for 2,606 yards with 23 touchdowns while keeping the interceptions low at 5. He ran for 529 yards and 3 touchdowns and is back along with the top two rushers last year. Shadrach Thornton ran for 907 yards and 9 touchdowns while Matt Dayes had 573 yards and 8 touchdowns. Tight end David Grinnage is the top returning receiver with 27 catches for 358 yards and 5 touchdowns. Bra’Lon Cherry had 27 catches for 354 yards and 3 touchdowns while Dayes was fourth on the team last year with 32 catches for 321 yards and 5 touchdowns. Three starters are back on the offensive line and the development of two more wide receivers will likely lead the offense to higher numbers in 2015.

The defense went from 30.2 points and 399 yards per game in Doeren’s first season in 2013 with only five starters back. Last year, the defense improved to 27 points and 373 yards per game with seven starters back. There are eight starters returning this year. Mike Rose (46 tackles, 5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss) and BJ Hill (40 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 6 tackles for loss) will be back on the line. Jerod Fernandez is the lone linebacker returning. He was second on the team in tackles last year with 78, but also recorded 3 tackles for loss, 2 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The secondary returns intact with all five starters back. As a unit, they gave up 205 yards passing per game and allowed 55.8% completions. Strong safety Josh Jones had 56 tackles, 1 sack, 7 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions last year. The defense will continue to improve in Doeren’s third year.

North Carolina State has an easy non-conference schedule. They open with Troy and Eastern Kentucky at home before facing Old Dominion and South Alabama on the road. In conference, they will face Louisville, Clemson, and Syracuse at home while facing Wake Forest, Boston College, and Florida State on the road. They draw Virginia Tech (road) and North Carolina (home) from the Atlantic, which are not easy games. However, the Wolfpack have improved under Doeren and the third year is usually the magical year for coaches. The Wolfpack will pull a few surprises and getting Louisville and Clemson at home helps. NC State is a dark horse contender in the ACC Atlantic.

3. Florida State Seminoles

After Bobby Bowden’s retirement in 2009, Jimbo Fisher took over and the Seminoles have been consistent since then. Florida State has failed to register double digit wins only once in 2011 when they went 9-4. FSU won the National Title in 2013 before losing in the College Football Playoff semifinals last year. Fisher has continued to recruit well, which could mean another dangerous FSU team in 2015.

The 2013 team was incredible on offense averaging 51.6 points and 519 yards per game with Heisman winner Jameis Winston at the helm. The offense came back to earth last year averaging only 33.7 points and 441 yards per game. Winston is gone and Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson is in. Golson threw for 3,445 yards with 29 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last year, but was turnover prone at times. Dalvin  Cook ran for 1,008 yards and 8 touchdowns last year, but his status is currently up in the air. The top two receivers are gone, but Travis Rudolph (38 catches for 555 yards and 4 touchdowns), Jesus Wilson (42 catches for 527 yards and 4 touchdowns), and Ermon Lane (13 catches for 267 yards and 1 touchdown) are ready to step up. Another negative is there is only one starter back on the offensive line in Roderick Johnson at left tackle. There is no doubting the talent here, but the lack of experience this year could hurt especially if Golson has a lot of turnovers.

The defense has been excellent under Fisher. Between 2010 and 2013, the defense did not allow more than 20 points or 360 yards per game (three seasons under 300 yards per game). 2014 was the worst season for the defense under Fisher with 25.6 points and 397 yards per game allowed. This year, seven starters are back including the top four tacklers. On the defensive line, DeMarcus Walker and Derrick Mitchell are back with Walker recording 38 tackles, 1 sack, and 5 tackles for loss. Linebacker is loaded with Reggie Northrup and Terrance Smith both returning. Northrup led FSU with 122 tackles while also recording 1 sack, 3 tackles for loss, and an interception. Smith was the #3 tackler with 87 and also put up 3.5 tackles for loss and 2 interceptions. The secondary is also loaded with three starters back led by Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey had 79 tackles (#4 on the team), 3 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, 12 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. It is no surprise he was named a 2nd Team All-American last year. The defense will be better in 2015.

Florida State opens with Texas State and South Florida both visiting Tallahassee. Their non-conference schedule ends with the final two games of the season against Chattanooga at home and a visit to the Swamp to face Florida. In conference, they will have winnable road games against Boston College and Wake Forest before a stern test against Clemson. Louisville, Syracuse, and North Carolina State will also be visiting Tallahassee. From the Coastal, FSU will take on Georgia Tech (road) and Miami (home). The offense is a bit of a concern, but once again FSU will be a contender to win this division.

4. Louisville Cardinals

Bobby Petrino was here at Louisville from 2003 through 2006 where he won both a C-USA and Big East Championship. Over those four seasons, Louisville went 41-9 and also won the 2007 Orange Bowl. After a failed attempt in the NFL, he returned to coach Arkansas where he went 34-17, but again his tenure ended badly and in controversy. He went to Western Kentucky for a year before replacing Charlie Strong prior to the 2014 season where Louisville went 9-4 in their inaugural ACC season.

Petrino’s teams have always been known for their offense and he will have five starters back in 2015. Last year, the offense put up 31.2 points and 395 yards per game without Teddy Bridgewater. Will Gardner returns after throwing 1,6691 yards with 12 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, who had several injuries during the season. Brandon Radcliff ran for 737 yards and 12 touchdowns and also have Malin Jones available after transferring from Northwestern. The Cardinals lose their top wide receiver in DeVante Parker, but James Quick returns after grabbing 36 passes for 566 yards and 3 touchdowns. Also entering the mix is Ja’Quay Savage from Texas A&M, who was highly touted out of high school. The offensive line has only two starters back, but in year two of Petrino’s offense, this group should be able to match last year’s production.

The defense has only four starters back from a group that allowed 21.8 points and 309 yards per game. The line has two starters back in Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei. Rankins was fourth on the team in tackles last year with 53 while also recording 8 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions. The linebacking unit has two starters back in Keith Kelsey (87 tackles and 6 sacks) and James Burgess (71 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, and 3 picks), but the biggest addition is former TCU and 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Devonte Fields. Fields will be wreaking havoc all year long if he stays healthy and has been cleared to play this season. The secondary has zero returning starters, but two former Georgia players resurface here in Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins. The defense will be solid again in 2015.

Louisville opens the season with a neutral site game in Atlanta versus Auburn before Houston comes to town. The non-conference schedule concludes with Samford in week four and a road game at Kentucky on the final weekend of November. The Cardinals will face North Carolina State, Florida State, and Wake Forest on the road while playing Clemson, Boston College, and Syracuse at home. From the Coastal Division, Louisville will play Virginia (home) and Pittsburgh (road) in two winnable games. Louisville has been picked fourth due to some losses on offense and defense, but do not sell them too short. They can move up in Petrino’s second season and have a chance to win the division.

5. Boston College Eagles

Boston College appeared in two ACC Championship games in 2007 and 2008, but lost both of those contests to Virginia Tech. Since then, BC has not registered higher than eight wins in a season and have had two losing seasons as well. Steve Addazio started in 2013 and has led BC to back-to-back 7-6 seasons with losses in the bowl game each year. Year three for Addazio is a mixed bag with some positives and some negatives.

The offense averaged 26.2 points and 384 yards per game last year despite only two starters back. That number is doubled to four this year, but one of them is not quarterback Tyler Murphy, who accounted for 1,623 yards passing, 13 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He also was the leading rusher with 1,184 yards and 11 touchdowns. Darius Wade is likely to win the starting job, but he has thrown only 8 passes (3 completions for 23 yards) in his career. The good news is that the entire running game returns minus Murphy. Jon Hillman ran for 860 yards and 13 touchdowns, Myles Willis had 459 yards and 2 touchdowns, Sherman Alston had 352 yards and 2 touchdowns, Marcus Outlow ran for 243 yards, and Tyler Rouse ran for 214 yards and 3 touchdowns. Dan Crimmins is the top receiver returning with only 305 yards on 25 catches, but the leader was not much better with 27 catches for 346 yards. The wide receivers only had 933 yards combined. The offensive line will be brand new in 2015 with no starters back. Murphy accounted for a lot of production last year and the Eagles may not top last years numbers.

The defense was excellent last year by surrendering only 21.3 points and 324 yards per game and there will be six starters back. The rush defense was incredible giving up 94 yards per game and the entire starting line returns. Mike Strizak had 43 tackles, 1 sack, and 4 tackles for loss while Kevin Kavalec recorded 40 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 7 tackles for loss. The line is the strength of the defense and will be important to helping the other units come together. Steven Daniels is the lone returning starter at linebacker. Daniels had 72 tackles (#2 on team), 1.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. He will be flanked by the inexperienced, but talented Connor Strachan (12 tackles last season). The secondary has only Justin Simmons back, but he led the team in tackles with 76 as well as recording 1 sack, 5 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense may not match the numbers of 2014, but should be close.

Boston College opens with back-to-back FCS teams at home with Maine and Howard, which puts them in an interesting spot for a bowl game. Should BC win those games, they would then need to win 7 games on the season. If they lose those games, they would still only need to reach 6-6. The other non-conference opponents are Northern Illinois (home) and Notre Dame (Boston). The face Florida State, Wake Forest, and North Carolina State at home while playing Clemson, Louisville, and Syracuse on the road. From the Coastal division, BC will take on Duke (road) and Virginia Tech (home). BC will need an upset to reach a bowl game for the third straight year in 2015, but are capable of getting that upset.

6. Syracuse Orange

Between 2005 and 2009, Syracuse did not win more than four games in a season. In 2010, they went 8-5 before falling back to 5-7 in 2011, but bounced right back up to 8-5 in 2012. Scott Shafer took over in 2013 and led Syracuse to a 7-6 with a bowl victory over Minnesota. Last year, the Orange went 3-9 with eight losses by double digits. A similar season for Shafer could spell the end of his time at Syracuse.

The offense has seven starters back from a team that put up only 17.1 points and 330 yards per game. Quarterback Terrel Hunt threw for 983 yards with 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions in an injury shortened season. AJ Long threw for 935 yards with 4 touchdowns and 8 interceptions while Austin Wilson threw for 253 yards and 4 interceptions. The top two running backs are gone with Devante McFarlane the top back. He ran for 169 yards on 28 carries while Ervin Phillips rushed for 194 yards. The top wide out is also gone, but Steve Ishmael (27 catches for 415 yards and 3 touchdowns), Ben Lewis (24 catches for 275 yards and 1 touchdown), Ashton Broyld (15 catches for 174 yards), and Brisly Estime (10 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown) all returning. Three starters are back on the offensive line and if the quarterback position stays healthy this year, the numbers can only go up.

The defense was solid last year allowing 24.3 points and 349 yards per game. This year, three starters return with one at each level. Ron Thompson is the lone returning lineman after recording 32 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 5 pass breakups. Marqez Hodge back after recording 38 tackles, 3 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss in an injury shortened year. The secondary has Julian Whigam back after recording 28 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and an interception. With the lack of experience on defense, it would be a surprise if the numbers did not regress.

Syracuse opens the season with four consecutive home games against Rhode Island, Wake Forest, Central Michigan, and LSU. They close out the non-conference slate after a bye on the road at South Florida. In conference, the Orange will take on the aforementioned Wake Forest team as well as Pittsburgh and Boston College at home. On the road, they will play Florida State, Louisville, and North Carolina State. From the Coastal division, Syracuse will face Pittsburgh (home) and Clemson (road). It is difficult to see Syracuse navigating their way to a bowl game in 2015 with the inexperienced defense, but could come close.

7. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Wake Forest won the 2006 ACC Championship and played in the 2006 Orange Bowl, but lost to Louisville 24-13. Since that magical season, it has been downhill for the Demon Deacons. They went 9-4 in 2007 and 8-5 in 2008, but failed to achieve a winning record since then with only a 2011 bowl loss to show for it. Dave Clawson was hired from Bowling Green to turn around the program and he led the team to a 3-9 record last year.

The offense was putrid last season with only four starters back. The numbers were 14.8 points and 216 yards per game with the rushing offense averaging a pathetic 40 yards per game. John Wolford threw for 2,037 yards with 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions and he will have his top target back. Cam Serigne, a tight end, caught 54 passes for 531 yards and 5 touchdowns. The top wide receiver from last year is Jared Crump, who caught 32 passes for 339 yards and a touchdown. The running game has the top rushers back in Dezmond Wortham and Isaiah Robinson. Wortham ran for 240 yards on 84 attempts (2.9 YPC) while Robinson had 175 yards and 3 touchdowns on 98 carries (1.8 YPC). The offense should perform better in 2015 in year two of Clawson’s system and a total of seven starters back.

The defense returns seven starters like their offensive counterparts. For as bad as the offense was, the defense was respectable by giving up 26.4 points and 369 yards of offense per game. The line has three starters returning led by Josh Banks, who had 36 tackles, 4 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss. The linebacking unit has three starters back. Brandon Chubb was second on the team in tackles last year with 109, but also had 3 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. Fellow linebacker Marquel Lee had 101 tackles (#3 on team) as well as 4 sacks and 8 tackles for loss. The secondary has just Ryan Janvion back, but he was the top tackler at 115. He also recorded 7 tackles for loss and 6 pass breakups. The defense could be solid again in 2015.

Wake Forest opens with Elon at home before back-to-back road games versus Syracuse and Army. They face Indiana in week four at home and then travel to Notre Dame in mid-November for the final non-conference game. In addition to Syracuse on the road, Wake Forest will play Boston College and Clemson as well. At home, they will take on Florida State, North Carolina State, and Louisville. From the Coastal, Wake Forest draws North Carolina (road) and Duke (home). Wake Forest will not be contending for a bowl game in 2015, but 3-4 wins would be good for this group.

Overview

The ACC Atlantic will come down to the quartet of Clemson, NC State, Florida State, and Louisville. Behind them will be Boston College and Syracuse as that duo will need an upset or two to reach a bowl game. Wake Forest is probably a year or two from a bowl game. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Clemson

2. North Carolina State

3. Florida State

4. Louisville

5. Boston College

6. Syracuse

7. Wake Forest

ACC Championship

On Tuesday, we predicted that North Carolina would win the ACC Coastal. With Clemson projected to take the ACC Atlantic, that would set up UNC versus Clemson for the ACC Championship. If that were to be the title game, Clemson is predicted to win the ACC Championship.

Check back on Tuesday as we dive into the Big 10’s West Division.

2015 College Football Preview: ACC Coastal

Paul Johnson has led Georgia Tech to the ACC Championship Game two of the last three years. Can he make it three of four? (Marc Serota/Getty Images North America)
Paul Johnson has led Georgia Tech to the ACC Championship Game two of the last three years. Can he make it three of four? (Marc Serota/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: ACC Coastal

We have reached the Power 5 conference previews with the Big 12 on Friday, July 31 and we continue on with the ACC’s Coastal Division. It is a contentious group of seven programs that nearly have a chance to claim a piece of the division title on paper. Below is the schedule of previews left, as well as the previews already published.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Below is a look at the ACC Coastal Division.

1. North Carolina Tar Heels

Larry Fedora has been with North Carolina for three years and came in with academic issues plaguing the program. The Tar Heels went 8-4 in Fedora’s first year, but were not eligible for a bowl game. In 2013, UNC went 7-6 and then 6-7 last season. Fedora will be under pressure to turn the program back around with his most experienced team in his tenure.

The offense has 10 starters returning form a unit that put up 33.2 points and 430 yards per game. Quarterback Marquise Williams threw for 3,068 yards with 21 touchdowns and 9 interceptions and was also the leading rusher with 788 yards and 13 touchdowns. Running back has TJ Logan (582 yards and 3 touchdowns), Romar Morris (278 yards and 4 touchdowns), and Elijah Hood (259 yards and 4 touchdowns) all back while one of those three should rush for more yards than the QB. The top four receivers also return with Ryan Switzer leading the team last year with 61 catches for 757 yards and 4 touchdowns. Mack Hollins caught 35 passes for 613 yards and 8 touchdowns as well. With the entire offensive line returning intact, the offense should be one of the most explosive in the ACC.

The defense was uncharacteristically bad last season giving up 39 points and 498 yards per game with seven starters back. Fedora’s defenses had given up 24.5 points and 25.7 points in his first two seasons. Seven starters return again this season with only three in the front seven. Linebacker Jeff Schoettmer was second on the team in tackles with 74 while also recording 6 tackles for loss, 4 pass breakups, 2 interceptions. The entire secondary is back as well as some experienced backups. Desmond Lawrence was the top defensive back with 71 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, and an interception. The defense will bounce back in a big way in 2015.

North Carolina opens with South Carolina in Charlotte before welcoming North Carolina A&T, Illinois, and Delaware to town the next three weeks. In conference, UNC faces Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, and Virginia Tech on the road. They will also face Virginia, Duke, and Miami (FL) at home. From the Atlantic they face Wake Forest (home) and North Carolina State (road). In a wide open ACC Coastal, North Carolina will have one of the top offenses and improved defense to help them back to a winning record and possible ACC title game appearance.

2. Virginia Tech Hokies

Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004 and ripped off eight straight years of double digit victories. The Hokies won 4 ACC Championships and appeared in another two title games between 2004 and 2011. Since then, VT has failed to win more than eight games in a season. Will another mediocre season turn up the heat on Frank Beamer?

The offense has eight starters back from a unit that put up 24.1 points and 365 yards per game in 2014. Michael Brewer is back at quarterback after throwing 2,692 yards with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The entire running back unit returns led by JC Coleman with 533 yards and 5 touchdowns and Marshawn Williams with 475 yards and 4 touchdowns. The top three wide receivers return as well in Isaiah Ford (56 catches for 709 yards and 6 touchdowns), Bucky Hodges (45 catches for 526 yards and 7 touchdowns), and Cam Phillips (40 catches for 498 yards and 3 touchdowns). The losses are on the offensive line where only two starters are back. There may be some issues on the line to start the season, but the offense should be able to put up better numbers in 2015.

The defense for Virginia Tech is usually one of the best in the nation each season. Last year, with only five starters back, the defense gave up 20.2 points and 344 yards per game. This year, eight starters return including the entire defensive line. Dadi Nicolas had 72 tackles, 9 sacks, and 9.5 tackles for loss en route to landing on the 2nd Team ACC squad. The unit allowed 145 rushing yards per game, which is the second worst in the last seven years. Expect that number to improve. Deon Clarke is the only linebacker returning, but he was the second leading tackler last year with 74 stops, 5 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, and an interception. Three in the secondary are back led by the dominant corner Kendall Fuller. Fuller had 54 tackles, 2 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, 15 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions last year while being named 2nd Team All-American. The defense will be stout once again under Beamer and Bud Foster.

Virginia Tech opens the season with a game at home on Labor Day against Ohio State, the same team they beat last year on the road. OSU went on to win the National Title. After that, they will take on Furman (home), Purdue (road), and East Carolina (road) to round out their non-conference schedule. In conference, VT will face Pittsburgh, Duke, and North Carolina at home while going on the road to lay Miami (FL), Georgia Tech, and Virginia. From the Atlantic division, VT will be taking on North Carolina State at home and Boston College on the road. It should be a bounce back year for Virginia Tech and they have a good shot at reaching the ACC Championship Game as well.

3. Duke Blue Devils

Duke’s athletic department showed a lot of patience with David Cutcliffe in the first four years. Cutcliffe did not have a winning season in his first four years before reaching a bowl game in 2012 for the first time since 1994. Duke then won the ACC Coastal in 2013 and went 9-4 last year. Cutcliffe is excellent at getting his Duke teams to overachieve.

The offense for Duke has six starters back, but loses their top quarterback in Anthony Boone (2,700 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions; 375 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns). Thomas Sirk is likely to get the starting QB duties after showing the ability to throw and run (238 yards and 8 rushing touchdowns). The top rushing duo of Shaquille Powell (618 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Shaun Wilson (598 yards and 5 touchdowns) return, but the top two receivers do not. Jamison Crowder was easily the best receiver last year with 85 catches for 1,044 yards and 6 touchdowns, but he is gone. Max McCaffrey will move into a bigger role after catching 37 passes for 385 yards and 3 touchdowns. The offensive line has three starters back as well, but it will be hard to match last year’s output of 32.4 points and 398 yards per game without some of the weapons.

The defense returns seven starters from a unit that allowed 21.8 points and 400 yards per game in 2014. Carlos Wray is the only returning starter on the line, who had 39 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 0.5 tackles for loss. Nose guard AJ Wolf did not start a game, but managed to record 23 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss last year. Kelby Brown is back at linebacker after missing 2014 due to a torn ACL. Brown had 114 tackles and 11 tackles for loss as a first team ACC selection in 2013. He is a welcomed addition to the defense this year. The secondary is back with all five starters from a group that allowed only 207 passing yards per game and 55.8% completions. DeVon Edwards (133 tackles), Jeremy Cash (111 tackles), Deondre Singleton (70 tackles), and Byron Fields (70 tackles) were the second, third, fourth, and fifth leading tacklers respectively last season. The secondary will be the strength once again 2015.

Duke opens with a road game against Tulane before welcoming North Carolina Central and Northwestern to Durham. They also face Army on the road in October as their final non-conference game. In conference, they will face Georgia Tech, Miami (FL), and Pittsburgh at home. On the road, they will have Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and Virginia. From the Atlantic division, Duke has winnable games against Boston College (home) and Wake Forest (road). Duke may not be as good on offense, but Cutcliffe has been excellent with Duke the past two years and the schedule is quite favorable with their Atlantic opponents. Expect another solid year from Duke.

4. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Paul Johnson has been at Georgia Tech seven years and has led them to a bowl game each year. Johnson has also led Georgia Tech to three ACC Championship Games (1-2 record) including two in the last three years (0-2 with both losses to Florida State). Georgia Tech lost 37-35 to Florida State last year in the ACC title game and finished with a 49-34 win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.

The offense has suffered heavy losses with only five starters back. Luckily for GT, one of the returning starters is quarterback Justin Thomas. Thomas threw for 1,719 yards with 18 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. More importantly, he was the leading rusher on the team with 1,986 yards and 8 touchdowns. A heavy burden will be placed on him without any of the other top rushers back. One of the projected starting running backs is Broderick Snoddy who had 283 yards and 3 touchdowns. Another is Dennis Andrews, but he ran for only 106 yards last year on 16 carries. The top returning receiver is Snoddy, who had 3 catches for 100 yards. There are four starters back on the offensive line to help ease the transition as well. The last time only five starters were back for GT was in Johnson’s first year in 2008. That offense put up only 24.4 points and 372 yards per game. Expect the offense in 2015 to eclipse those numbers, but will not come close to matching last year’s output of 37.9 points and 477 yards per game.

The defense has eight starters back in 2015, tying for the most returning starters under Johnson’s tenure (2010). 2014’s defense allowed only 25.7 points and 411 yards per game despite only four starters back. The defensive line has three starters back anchored by 2nd Team ACC nose tackle Adam Gotsis. Gotsis had 36 tackles, 3 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. Also on the line is KeShun Freeman, who had 54 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss. PJ Davis is only one of two linebackers in this scheme, but he is a big returning starter. He led GT with 119 tackles while also recording 4 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. The entire secondary, except for nickelback, returns led by DJ White. He had 66 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 8 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions last year. The defense should improve on the yardage total, if not the points total as well.

Georgia Tech opens the year with Alcorn State and Tulane at home before a road trip to Notre Dame. Their last non-conference game is the season finale against arch-rival Georgia with the game at home. In conference, they will have Duke, Virginia, and Miami (FL) on the road while facing North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Virginia Tech at home. From the Atlantic Division, they have to face Clemson on the road and Florida State at home making this schedule quite difficult. Georgia Tech’s offense will need to get going if they are to win the division again. However, they can still expect a bowl game appearance and the defense will be keeping them in most games.

5. Miami Hurricanes

Al Golden arrived in Coral Gables in December 2010 amidst controversy within the football program. He finished 6-6 in 2011 and 7-5 in 2012, but the Hurricanes were not eligible for a bowl game due to an NCAA investigation. Miami went 9-4 in 2013 and 6-7 in 2014 leaving some to wonder if Golden is on the hot seat in 2015.

The offense returns five starters from 2014 in which they put up 29.2 points and 430 yards per game. One player who will not be back is Duke Johnson, who had 1,652 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing while also being the third leading receiver with 38 catches for 421 yards and 3 touchdowns. Brad Kaaya, who will be back this season, threw for 3,198 yards with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The top returning rusher is Joseph Yearby, who had 509 yards and a touchdown on 86 carries. Gus Edwards also returns after rushing for 349 yards and 6 touchdowns on 61 carries. The receiving corps took a hit with Phillip Dorsett and Clive Walford, the top two receivers in 2014, moving on. Herb Waters had 20 catches for 277 yards and a touchdown while Malcolm Lewis had 25 catches for 248 yards and a touchdown. The offensive line has only two starters back and the offense may struggle without the top playmakers from a year ago.

The defense returns six starters from a group that allowed 24.3 points and only 330 yards per game in 2014. The defensive line has only one starter back in Calvin Heurtelou (25 tackles), but Ufomba Kamalu performed well despite only one start. Kamalu had 34 tackles and 3.5 sacks last year. Two linebackers return in Tyriq McCord (48 tackles, 3 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss) and Raphael Kirby (54 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions). The secondary has three starters back led by Deon Bush with 53 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions. Golden’s defenses usually perform well and that should continue in 2015 as well.

Miami has an easy start to the season with Bethune-Cookman coming to Coral Gables before a road trip to face Florida Atlantic. The second half of the non-conference schedule is far more difficult with Nebraska visiting and then Miami going on the road to face Cincinnati. Miami will face Virginia Tech, Virginia, and Georgia Tech at home while playing Duke, North Carolina, and Pittsburgh on the road. They have the worst draw from the Atlantic division with Florida State (road) and Clemson (home). Miami’s offense will be the concern this year without their top players from 2014 and the schedule is tough. However, Miami should make a bowl game and could surprise with a higher finish.

6. Pittsburgh Panthers

Todd Graham became Pittsburgh’s head coach in 2011, but led them to a 6-6 record before leaving for Arizona State. Paul Chryst took over in 2012 and led the Panthers to three straight 6-6 regular seasons. They lost the 2012 bowl game to finish 6-7, won in 2013 to finish 7-6, and he left for Wisconsin before Pitt lost the Armed Forces Bowl 35-34 to Houston and finished 6-7 again. Pat Narduzzi is the new head coach in 2015 and he was the defensive coordinator at Michigan State from 2007 through 2014.

Narduzzi will have eight starters back on offense including his biggest playmakers. Chad Voytik threw for 2,233 yards with 16 touchdowns and 7 interceptions and he will be returning along with wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Boyd caught 78 passes for 1,261 yards and 8 touchdowns and is one of the top receivers in all of college football. Boyd will miss the opening game against Youngstown State. Also returning for 2015 is running back James Conner. He had 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns giving Pittsburgh a nice 1-2 punch in the passing and rushing game. The offense put up 31.8 points and 435 yards per game in 2014 and could match those numbers this year. However, the Panthers need to develop second and third options in the passing game behind Boyd.

The defense, which is Narduzzi’s specialty, will have seven starters back from a group that allowed 26.3 points and 360 yards per game in 2014. Three starters are back on the defensive line led by Darryl Render. Render had 32 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 4 pass breakups. Matt Galambos is the lone returning linebacker and he was third on the team in tackles last year. He had 72 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. the secondary return three starters including Reggie Mitchell. Mitchell had 52 tackles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, and 7 pass breakups. The defense should be solid even with new schemes under Narduzzi.

Pittsburgh opens the season against Youngstown State at home before back-to-back road games against Akron and Iowa. They conclude their non-conference slate at home against Notre Dame on November 7. In conference, they will face Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Duke on the road while playing Virginia, North Carolina, and Miami (FL) at home. From the Atlantic, they will have a road game at Syracuse and get Louisville at home. Pat Narduzzi enters a great situation with the offensive firepower and Pittsburgh should be back in another bowl game, if not pulling a few surprises in the ACC.

7. Virginia Cavaliers

Mike London went 4-8 in his first season in 2010 before having an excellent 8-5 season in 2011. Since then it has been rough. Virginia went 4-8 in 2012 and then fell to 2-10 in 2013. Last year, the Cavaliers went 5-7 and several close loss throughout the season prevented them from reaching a second bowl game under London. The pressure is on to get Virginia back to a bowl game for Mike London.

The offense returns five starters this year from a unit that put up 25.8 points and 374 yards of offense per game. The quarterback position was not settled last year and Matt Johns is expected to be the starter. Johns threw for 1,109 yards with 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions while starting on three games and playing in all 12. The top two running backs are gone, but highly touted Taquan Mizzell ran for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns on 64 rushes last season. The top receiver is back in Canaan Severin, who had 42 catches for 578 yards and 5 touchdowns. The offensive line does return four starters, but there are some serious concerns with the running backs and wide receivers this year.

The defense has five starters back as well after giving up only 24.1 points and 353 yards per game last year. That group had nine starters returning. Three defensive linemen are back including Mike Moore (36 tackles, 3 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss) and David Dean (40 tackles, 1 sack, and 7 tackles for loss). The line gave up only 121 rushing yards per game and they may not be able to match that, but could come close. The linebackers were hit hard with all of the starters from 2014 departing, but there is plenty of talent in the group. The secondary has only two starters back, but one of the is Quin Blanding. He led Virginia in tackles last year with 123, but also recorded 1 sack, 1.5 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions. The defense will be hard-pressed to match last year’s numbers.

Virginia has a brutal out of conference schedule with games against UCLA, Notre Dame, William & Mary, and Boise State. They do have the last three of those games at home, but two are against quality opponents. In conference, Virginia will play Pittsburgh, North Carolina, and Miami (FL) on the road and welcome Georgia Tech, Duke, and Virginia Tech to Charlottesville. From the Atlantic, they will play Syracuse at home and travel to Louisville. It will be tough for Virginia to reach bowl eligibility and Mike London will most likely be relieved of his duties if they cannot get back to a bowl.

Overview

Other than Virginia, it appears that the other six teams all have a chance at making noise in the ACC Coastal Division. North Carolina is tapped to win the division, but Virginia Tech, Duke, Georgia Tech, and Miami (FL) could also have a chance. Pittsburgh has a new coach in Pat Narduzzi, but a lot of pieces in place for him and cannot be discounted. It could be the end for Mike London at Virginia this year. Here is the predicted order of finish.

1. North Carolina

2. Virginia Tech

3. Duke

4. Georgia Tech

5. Miami (FL)

6. Pittsburgh

7. Virginia

Check back on Friday for the ACC Atlantic Division preview as well as a look at who will be predicted to win the ACC Championship Game.

2015 College Football Preview: Big 12

TCU and Baylor both finished 2014 with 8-1 records in Big 12 play. Will it come down to these two again in 2015? (Tom Pennington/Getty Images North America)
TCU and Baylor both finished 2014 with 8-1 records in Big 12 play. Will it come down to these two again in 2015? (Tom Pennington/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: Big 12

Part ten of the 2015 College Football Preview will look at the Big 12. Last year was a rough year for the Big 12 after having both Baylor and TCU left out of the College Football Playoff. Below is the schedule of previews left, as well as the previews already published.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Below is a look at each of the ten teams that make up the Big 12.

1. TCU Horned Frogs

Gary Patterson has led TCU since 2000 when he was the head coach for the bowl game that year. Since then, he has led TCU through Conference USA to the Mountain West to the Big East (for a moment) and finally here to the Big 12. During that time, he has had only two losing seasons and was close to leading TCU into the inaugural College Football Playoff last year.

TCU went from 25.1 points and 345 yards per game in 2013 to 46.5 points and 533 yards per game in 2014. The scariest part is that TEN starters return making this one of the best offenses in the nation. Trevone Boykin threw for 3,901 yards with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while also rushing for 707 yards and 8 touchdowns. Top running back from 2014, Aaron Green, ran for 922 yards and 9 touchdowns while also returning. Wide receivers Josh Doctson (65 catches for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns), Kolby Listenbee (41 catches for 753 yards and 4 touchdowns), and Deante’ Gray (36 catches for 582 yards and 8 touchdowns) all return as well. The defenses in the Big 12 better watch out for this incredible TCU machine.

TCU’s defense has only five starters back from a unit that allowed 19 points and 342 yards per game in 2014. The defensive line has three starters back including defensive end James McFarland, who had 41 tackles, 7 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and an interception. Nebraska transfer Aaron Curry also joins the fray. The linebacking unit has been hit hard by losses with the top three gone leaving this the most inexperienced part of the defense. The secondary has both Ranthony Texada and Derrick Kindred back from a group that allowed only 48.5% completions. The TCU defense is the top priority for Patterson and it would be surprising to see them struggle for long during the season.

TCU opens with a road game against Minnesota before back-to-back home games against Stephen F Austin and SMU. The Big 12 plays a round robin schedule, which means TCU will face each team in the conference. TCU faces Texas (home), Kansas State (road), Oklahoma (road), and the biggest game against Baylor is also at home. TCU very well could run the table and make up for last year’s snub from the College Football Playoff committee.

2. Baylor Bears

Baylor used to constantly finish in the Big 12’s cellar prior to the hiring of Art Briles. Since then, Briles has led the Bears to a bowl game every year since 2010 and double digit win totals in three of the last four years. Last year, Baylor nearly made the College Football Playoff, but were left out by the committee.

Briles will have his most experienced offense since his first season at Baylor in 2008. There are nine starters back from a group that put up 48.2 points and 581 yards of offense. Gone is quarterback Bryce Petty (3,855 yards, 29 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, and 63.1% completion), but Briles is renowned for producing stellar quarterbacks. Seth Russell is ready to take his turn after throwing for 804 yards with 8 touchdowns and 1 interception while getting some playing time with Petty’s injury last season. Shock Linwood is back to run the ball after rushing for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns. The top two wide receivers return as well with Corey Coleman (64 catches for 1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns) and the speedy KD Cannon (58 catches for 1,030 yards and 8 touchdowns). The entire offensive line returns and Baylor should continue to put out points at will in 2015.

The defense for Briles will be his most experienced since he has taken over at Baylor. He has nine starters back from a group that allowed 25.5 points and 382 yards of offense per game. That was done with only four starters back for 2014 as well. The defensive line returns intact including the imposing Shawn Oakman. Oakman had 51 tackles, 11 sacks, and 8.5 tackles for loss last year, but is probably best known for his imposing stance in last year’s Cotton Bowl against Michigan State. Linebacker lost one starter, but does return Taylor Young, the team’s second leading tackler at 92. The secondary also returns all four starters from a group that allowed only 54.6% completions.

Baylor has an easy non-conference schedule with games against SMU (road), Lamar (home), and Rice (home). In conference, Baylor has a brutal schedule to close out the year. The final five games are against Kansas State (road), Oklahoma (home), Oklahoma State (road), TCU (road), and Texas (home). That finish to the season could ultimately cost Baylor the Big 12 title, but they still have an excellent shot at getting to the TCU game undefeated to set up an unofficial Big 12 title game.

3. Texas Longhorns

Charlie Strong took over at Texas prior to last season after 16 years of Mack Brown at the helm. Strong instituted much more discipline, which resulted in some losses, but still guided the team to a 6-6 regular season before losing the Texas Bowl to Arkansas by a score of 31-7.

The offense averaged 21.4 points and 337 yards per game in Strong’s first season. This year, seven starters are back including quarterback Tyrone Swoopes. Swoopes threw for 2,409 yards with 13 touchdown and 11 interceptions while also rushing for 264 yards and 4 touchdowns. Jonathan Gray may finally get his chance to get all the carries at running back after rushing for 637 yards and 7 touchdowns as the team’s second leading rusher. John Harris and Jaxon Shipley were the top two receivers last year, but have departed leaving Marcus Johnson as the top returning receiver. He caught 27 passes for 313 yards and a touchdown. The entire offensive line returns and the offense should perform better in 2015 with a year of Strong’s schemes under their belts.

The defense returns only five starters, but the strength of Strong’s coaching tends to be on this side of the ball. Two linemen return including tackle Hassan Ridgeway, who had 43 tackles, 6 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss. The line gave up 164 yards rushing per game in 2014 and will probably improve on that in 2015. The linebackers are all gone leaving this unit very inexperienced, but Malik Jefferson is expected to start immediately as a true freshman. The secondary has three starters back led by safety Dylan Haines. Haines had 86 tackles to finish third on the team while also tallying 7 pass breakups and 4 interceptions. The defense gave up 23.8 points and 349 yards per game in 2014 and should have a similar year this time around as well.

Texas has an interesting non-conference schedule with games against Notre Dame (road), Rice (home), and California (home). They face Oklahoma State (home), TCU (road), Oklahoma (Dallas), Kansas State (home), and Baylor (road). They also have a tricky road game at West Virginia. Strong has recruited well and should be able to get Texas back to a winning season this year.

4. Oklahoma Sooners

Oklahoma has been good under Bob Stoops, but only won a single National Championship (2000) during that time while playing in three others (2003, 2004, and 2008). Stoops has produced many double digit win seasons, but the lack of National Championship appearances in the last 7 years has left some weary.

The Oklahoma offense has seven starters returning including quarterback Trevor Knight (2,300 yards with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions), but he may not be the starter. That could be Baker Mayfield. Mayfield started at Texas Tech in 2013 (2,315 yards with 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions) where he had an excellent start, but decided to move on to Oklahoma. Whichever player is behind center, they will have running back Samaje Perine to handoff to. He ran for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns as a true freshman. Also returning are the top four receivers led by Sterling Shepard with 51 catches for 970 yards and 5 touchdowns. The offensive line has only two starters returning, but the unit as a whole should be able to match 2014’s output of 36.4 points and 465 yards per game.

The defense under Stoops has been consistent with most years giving up points per game in the low to mid 20s and less than 400 yards per game. 2014 was no different at 25.9 points and 383 yards per game. There are six starters back and only one of those is on the line in Charles Tapper. Tapper had 37 tackles, 3 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss while the group allowed only 106 yards rushing per game. Three of the four linebackers return including Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans. Alexander had 107 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss while Evans finished 2014 with 93 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. The secondary has two starters back in Zack Sanchez and Ahmad Thomas while giving up 276 passing yards per game and 56.3% completions. Expect another typical finish for the Sooners on defense.

Oklahoma opens the year with Akron at home, Tennessee on the road, and Tulsa at home before a bye week leads into conference play. In conference, they will face West Virginia (home), Texas (Dallas), and Kansas State (road) early. The last three games consist of Baylor (road), TCU (home), and Oklahoma State (road). The Sooners could surprise this year if the defense improves, but Stoops’ teams have a tendency to underachieve a bit.

5. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Oklahoma State has three double digit win seasons since 2010 and have been to a bowl game each year since 2006. 2015 has a chance to produce another one of those double digit win totals.

There are eight starters back on offense for the Cowboys from a group that put up 27.6 points and 379 yards per game. Daxx Garman threw for 2,041 yards with 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, but has opted to transfer. Mason Rudolph started the last three games and finished 2014 with 853 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. Rudolph is expected to beat out JW Walsh and John Kolar for the starting spot. The top two running backs are gone with Ronnie Childs the top rusher returning from 2014 with only 294 yards and 3 touchdowns. Chris Carson arrives from junior college in the fall while coming back from injury is Sione Palelei. Wide receiver is not an area of concern with the trio of Brandon Sheperd, David Glidden, and James Washington returning after posting at least 450 yards and two touchdowns each. The offense should get back to putting up a lot of points in Stillwater.

The defense struggled last year giving up 31.2 points and 432 yards per game with only four starters returning. The number of starters returning doubles to eight this year. The defensive line is hit the hardest with two starters lost, but still have two starters coming back in Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean. Ogbah was excellent last year with 49 tackles, 11 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, and 5 pass breakups. Linebacker is strong with the duo of Ryan Simmons (96 tackles, 2 sacks, 10 tackles for loss) and Seth Jacobs (92 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions) back. Three starters are back in the secondary led by Jordan Sterns. Sterns was best on the team in tackles last year with 103 while also recording 4.5 tackles for loss and 4 pass breakups. The defense should be better in 2015 with the amount of experience they have returning.

Oklahoma State has a very easy non-conference schedule with Central Michigan (road), Central Arkansas, and Texas-San Antonio on the slate. In conference, they have Texas and West Virginia on the road, but get Kansas State, TCU, Baylor, and Oklahoma all at home. Oklahoma State has a shot of getting back to 10 wins in 2015 with just an upset or two.

6. Kansas State Wildcats

Bill Snyder retired in 2005 and handed over the program to Ron Prince. However, Prince led KSU to records of 7-6, 5-7, and 5-7 prompting Snyder to come out of retirement. Snyder has led KSU to at least a .500 record or better in the last six years including two double digit win seasons.

The Wildcats have six starters back on offense, but the losses are heavy with quarterback Jake Waters as well as wide receivers Tyler Lockett, Curry Sexton, and Zach Trujillo all departing. The quarterback job is not settled and will come down to freshman Alex Delton, junior Joe Hubener, sophomore Jesse Ertz, or junior college transfer Johnathan Banks. Charles Jones led KSU in rushing last year, but had only 540 yards while scoring 13 touchdowns. The top receivers back are Kody Cook (20 catches for 251 yards and a touchdown) and Deante Burton (17 catches for 171 yards). Four offensive linemen return from a unit that scored 35.8 points and put up 422 yards per game. The offense probably will not match those numbers in 2015, but Snyder always gets the best out of his teams.

The defense also has six starters back from a group that allowed 23.2 points and 369 yards per game. The line has two starters back in Jordan Willis (26 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and .5 tackles for loss) and Travis Britz (27 tackles, 3 sacks, and 2 tackles for loss). Linebacker has no starters back, which will hurt the defense, but three starters return in the secondary. Dante Barnett had 77 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 8 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions last year. The defense will have another solid year under Snyder.

Kansas State has an out of conference schedule comprised of South Dakota (home), Texas-San Antonio (road), and Louisiana Tech (home). They will face the TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor, and West Virginia at home while going on the road to play Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas Tech. KSU should take a step back, but still be able to make a bowl game this year as well as pull an upset or two in the Big 12.

7. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Texas Tech began sparklingly in 2013 going 7-0 and reaching as high as tenth in the nation. An eight point loss to Oklahoma started a five game losing streak that ended with four consecutive blowouts. Texas Tech finished that season 8-5 thanks to a win over Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl, but high hopes for 2014 were dashed following a 4-8 record. Kliff Kingsbury needs to have a bounce back season in 2015.

The offense has nine starters back including two quarterbacks who played last year. Davis Webb started the year, but was injured late in the season and finished with 2,539 yards with 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Patrick Mahomes started the last four, throwing for 1,547 yards with 16 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. DeAndre Washington, who ran for 1,103 yards and 2 touchdowns last year, returns at running back. Washington also caught 30 passes for 328 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jakeem Grant (67 catches for 938 yards and 7 touchdowns), Devin Lauderdale (31 catches for 589 yards and 2 touchdowns), and Ian Sadler (23 catches for 336 yards and 2 touchdowns) all return at receiver with only the number two guy (Bradley Marquez; 65 catches for 821 yards and 10 touchdowns) departs. Four starters also return on the offensive line and the Red Raiders are likely to beat their 2014 output of 30.5 points per game this year.

The defense has eight starters returning, but struggled mightily last year. With four starters back, the defense allowed 41.3 points and 513 yards per game. Those numbers were over 10 points and nearly 100 yards per game higher than 2013. Defensive end Pete Robertson led Texas Tech in tackles last year with 81 while also recording 12 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 3 pass breakups. Micah Awe returns at linebacker after tallying 69 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 tackles for loss. The secondary has all four starters back and should improve on their 253 passing yards given up per game in 2014. Overall, the defense should get back to 2013 numbers of 30.5 points and 419 yards per game.

Texas Tech opens with Sam Houston State and UTEP at home before traveling to face Arkansas in their final non-conference game. In conference, they face TCU, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State at home. They will face Baylor in Arlington, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Texas on the road. Texas Tech will need to pull a couple of upsets to reach bowl eligibility, but they certainly are able to do so.

8. West Virginia Mountaineers

West Virginia moved to the Big 12 prior to the 2012 season and has seen some success. They have gone 7-6, 4-8, and 7-6 in their first three seasons while having some potent offenses. 2015 will be Dana Holgorsen’s fifth season with the team.

Six starters are back for West Virginia on offense, but two of those will not be quarterback Clint Trickett and wide receiver Kevin White. Skyler Howard is expected to lead WV after throwing for 829 yards and 8 touchdowns (no interceptions) after starting the final two games. Rushel Shell ran for 788 yards and 7 touchdowns while Wendell Smallwood ran for 722 yards and 2 touchdowns with both of those backs returning. Jordan Thompson is the top returning wideout after grabbing 49 catches for 598 yards and 2 touchdowns. The offense put up 33.5 points and 500 yards of offense last year and may come up short of reaching those numbers this year with a new quarterback and the loss of White.

The 2015 defense will be the most experienced under Holgorsen with nine starters returning. Two starters on the defensive line, but linebacker is where the top returnee is. Nick Kwiatkoski led the team with 103 tackles, but also had 0.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, and 4 pass breakups. The secondary has all four starters back as well as KJ Dillon (62 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions) at the Spur position. The secondary should be the best part of the defense this year.

West Virginia has three non-conference home games to start the year with Georgia Southern, Liberty, and Maryland all going to Morgantown. Also going to Morgantown in Big 12 play will be Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Texas. West Virginia will have to travel to Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU, and Kansas State. West Virginia will be close to bowl eligibility this year and should get there with an upset in the Big 12.

9. Iowa State

Paul Rhoads has led Iowa State to three bowl games in six seasons, but also has five losing seasons at Iowa State (two years of 6-7 records). Iowa State went 3-9 in 2013 and 2-10 in 2014. Rhoads will need to improve in 2015 if he is to keep his job in 2016 and beyond.

The offense has seven starters back led by Sam B. Richardson and his top two wide receivers. Richardson threw for 2,669 yards with 18 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He also ran for 421 yards and 3 scores. He will be throwing to D’Vario Montgomery (44 catches for 605 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Allen Lazard (45 catches for 593 yards and 3 touchdowns). A top running back will need to be found with Tyler Brown (109 yards) and Martinez Syria (47 yards and a touchdown) the top returning rushers behind Richardson. The offense will be guided by Mark Mangino in his second year. After putting up numbers of 23.2 points and 373 yards per game, Iowa State should be able to match those numbers on offense.

The defense last year was the worst under Rhoads. The unit gave up 38.8 points and 529 yards per game. Now, six starters are back (five were back in 2014) and Rhoads’ work is cut out for him. The defensive line has Trent Taylor back (37 tackles, 2 sacks, and 3 tackles for loss), but adds in two highly rated junior college transfers in Bobby Leath and Demond Tucker. Linebacker has only Luke Knott returning, but he had 74 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and an interception last year as a starter. The secondary is bring back three starters in Sam E. Richardson, Nigel Tribune, and Kamari Cotton-Moya. Cotton-Moya was the teams leading tackler in 2014 with 77 stops and was named the Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. It is hard to see the defense not getting better under Rhoads this year.

Iowa State opens with rivalry games against Northern Iowa and Iowa at home before a road test against Toledo. They open Big 12 play against Kansas at home in a game that could determine who finishes last in the Big 12. They also TCU, Texas, and Oklahoma State at home while facing Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma, Kansas State, and West Virginia on the road. Iowa State usually gets a shocking upset or two against Big 12 foes and that should be expected in 2015. However, it will probably not be enough to get the back to bowl eligibility.

10. Kansas Jayhawks

Given the current state of Kansas’ football program, it is surprising to think they were one of the top teams in 2007 when they reached #2 before a loss against Missouri in the regular season finale. Kansas went on to win the Orange Bowl 24-21 over Virginia Tech. Since then, it has been downhill with Kansas having six straight losing seasons. Since Mark Mangino was fired after the 2009 season, the Jayhawks have not won more than three games in a season. David Beaty is now in charge of turning the Kansas football program around and it will be difficult in 2015.

Kansas’ offense has not averaged more than 20 points per game in a season since 2011 when they hit 22.3 points per game. In 2015, there will be only four starters back for Beaty to work with. Montell Cozart (1,715 yards with 9 touchdowns and 6 interceptions) and Michael Cummings (701 yards with 5 touchdowns and 7 interceptions) back from 2014. Also with a chance to win the starting QB spot are TJ Millweard, Carter Stanley, and Ryan Willis. Corey Avery ran for 631 yards and 5 touchdowns last year, but was suspended for spring and kicked off the team in June. That leaves De’Andre Mann as the top returning rusher with 399 yards. Ke’aun Kinner transferred in from his junior college and is expected to get snaps as well. Wide receiver was crushed by losses with the top six receivers gone. Kent Taylor, who was one of the top tight ends in 2013, has transferred in from Florida. The line returns two starters and Kansas may not even match last year’s production of 17.8 points and 324 yards of offense per game this year with a new coach and schemes.

Defense is also an issue for Beaty in year one. He has only three returning starters from a unit that allowed 33.3 points and 453 yards per game in 2014. Ben Goodman is the only starter returning on the line after recording 21 tackles, 1 sack, and a tackle for loss last season. The other two starters returning are at linebacker with Jake Love (53 tackles, 3 sacks, and 6.5 tackles for loss), and nickelback with Tevin Shaw (36 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss). The defense should be in store for another rough year.

Kansas opens with South Dakota State and Memphis at home before a bye week leads into a road game at Rutgers. Their Big 12 slate opens with a road game at Iowa State that will probably determine the bottom team in the Big 12. It is hard to see Kansas getting more than a victory or two in 2015 and Beaty has a lot of work ahead of him if Kansas is to get back to being competitive in the Big 12.

Overview

The Big 12 looks like a two horse race between TCU and Baylor for the title. However, the second tier of Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State could surprise with a few upsets or the top two do worse than expected. Texas Tech and West Virginia will be battling for bowl eligibility while Iowa State and Kansas will play to stay out of the cellar. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. TCU

2. Baylor

3. Texas

4. Oklahoma

5. Oklahoma State

6. Kansas State

7. Texas Tech

8. West Virginia

9. Iowa State

10. Kansas

Check back on Tuesday, August 4 for a preview of the ACC’s Coastal Division.

2015 College Football Preview: Sun Belt

The duo of Fredi Knighten (#9) and Michael Gordon (#34) are hoping to continue Arkansas State's reign as the best team in the Sun Belt over the past five years. (Michael Chang/Getty Images North America)
The duo of Fredi Knighten (#9) and Michael Gordon (#34) are hoping to continue Arkansas State’s reign as the best team in the Sun Belt over the past five years. (Michael Chang/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: Sun Belt

Part eight of Sports Enthusiasts 2015 College Football Preview will look at the 11 teams in the Sun Belt Conference. In addition, the FBS Independents Preview can also be seen here in this double release. Below is a schedule of the conferences that have already been previewed and which ones are still ahead.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Below is a look at each of the Sun Belt teams and their outlook for 2015.

1. Arkansas State Red Wolves

Arkansas State has finally found a bit of stability in their head coach after seeing four different coaches in four seasons from 2011 through 2014. Blake Anderson came in for the 2014 season and led Arkansas State to a 7-6 record and 5-3 in the Sun Belt. 2015 is looking pretty good for Arkansas State as well.

2014 saw only three starters back for the Red Wolves on offense, but that was not an issue as they put up 36.7 points and 476 yards of offense. Quarterback Fredi Knighten will lead another high powered attack after throwing for 3,277 yards with 24 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He also ran for 779 yards and 11 touchdowns and he will have his main workhorse running back returning as well. Michael Gordon ran for 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns making this backfield incredibly dangerous in the Sun Belt. ASU had three receivers with at least 35 catches and 600+ yards in 2014 and all three are back (Tres Houston, Dijon Paschal, JD McKissic). It is scary to think that ASU could put up even higher numbers in 2015 with nine starters back, but it is a strong possibility with one of the best, if not already the top, offense in the Sun Belt.

The defense returns six starters after surrendering 30.5 points and 421 yards per game last year. Three defensive linemen are back after giving up 205 yards rushing per game including Chris Stone. Stone had 48 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss in 2014 and will need to have a strong year again. ASU lost their top linebacker from a year ago, but do return the other two. The secondary has only one starter back in Money Hunter and will possibly struggle back there. The Red Wolves may struggle at times, but should have a similar season defensively that they produced last year.

Arkansas State opens with a road game at USC before back-to-back home games against Missouri and Missouri State. They travel to face Toledo before entering conference play. They have some tough games in the Sun Belt with Appalachian State and UL-Monroe on the road as well as UL-Lafayette and Texas State at home. They are the team to beat in the Sun Belt with this offense.

2. Texas State Bobcats

Texas State has been part of the FBS since 2012 and head coach Dennis Franchione has been with them since 2011. The Bobcats have not been bad by any stretch of the imagination as they have three seasons of 6-6 or better. 2015 is a great chance for them to make their first bowl game in school history.

The offense will return eight starters from a unit that put up 33.8 points and 464 yards in 2014. Tyler Jones threw for 2,670 yards with 22 touchdowns and 7 interceptions while rushing for another 539 yards and 6 touchdowns. Running back Robert Lowe ran for 1,091 yards and 12 touchdowns while the return of Chris Nutall could give the Bobcats an excellent 1-2 punch. Bradley Miller was the top receiver last year with 44 catches for 431 yards, but the second, third, and fourth leading receivers from 2014 return and could have a better year of production. The offense will continue to do well for Texas State.

The defense was respectable last season with only four returning starters back. They gave up 27.7 points and 446 yards per game and now return six starters for 2015. Three starters are back on the line while linebacker will have to replace the monster in David Mayo. Mayo recorded 154 tackles in 2014 and it will fall to Trey McGowan to lead the unit (80 tackles in 2014 as the team’s second leading tackler). Two starters are back in the secondary and should see some steady improvement over 2014. The defense should be no worse than they were a year ago even with Mayo gone.

Texas State has Florida State on the road to start the season while they will then play the duo of Prairie View and Southern Miss at home. They will face Houston on the road to close out the non-conference portion before facing UL-Lafayette on the road with that game sandwich between two bye weeks. Other games that will be a test include Georgia Southern (road), UL-Monroe )home), and Arkansas State (road) in the final week of the season. That final game could determine which team is the winner of the Sun Belt in 2015.

3. Georgia Southern Eagles

Georgia Southern’s first year in the Sun Belt in 2014 was simply amazing. They went undefeated in conference play at 8-0 and finished the year at 9-3. They lost by a grand total of five points to North Carolina State and Georgia Tech on the road as well. Thanks to an NCAA rule prohibiting transitional teams from the FCS to make bowl appearances, they were not in the post-season. Could 2015 provide Georgia Southern with a second straight championship?

The offense was spectacular in 2014 with 39.1 points and 488 yards of offense produced per game. The main core of the offense is back with five starters returning. Kevin Ellison threw for 1,001 yards, five touchdowns, and three interceptions while finishing second on the team in rushing at 1,096 yards and 12 touchdowns. The top running backs all return led by Matt Breida. He had 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns while Alfred Ramsby (691 yards and 12 touchdowns) and Favian Upshaw (385 yards and 2 touchdowns) are returning as well. The number one and three receivers depart, but BJ Johnson led the Eagles in catches with 23 for 312 yards and 3 touchdowns. The passing game is not the focus of the offense, but there is only one starter back on the line. The offense will still be potent in 2015, but it may not reach the same heights it did last year.

The defense performed quite admirably in 2014 by allowing 23.4 points and 388 yards per game in the Eagles’ first full FBS season. The entire defensive line returns intact after giving up 154 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. Linebacker is the weak spot with only Antwione Williams back after recording 65 tackles, 3 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss and the loss of Edwin Jackson will be tough (100 tackles to lead team). The secondary returns three starters from a group that allowed 58.5% completions. The defense will be solid again in their second year of FBS play.

The Eagles will open the season on the road at West Virginia before back-to-back home games versus Western Michigan and The Citadel. They open conference play after that with back-to-back road games against Idaho and UL-Monroe. Their final non-conference game is in late November at Georgia. They will have to face the likes of Appalachian State (road) and Texas State (home), but avoid Arkansas State and UL-Lafayette. Georgia Southern should be in their first bowl game (they are eligible this year) and should finish high in the Sun Belt.

4. Appalachian State Mountaineers

Like Georgia Southern, Appalachian State was in their first full FBS season in 2014. They had an awful start going 1-5 before winning their final six games to finish 7-5. Also like Georgia Southern, they were not eligible for a bowl game.

The offense returns a whopping 10 starters after averaging 35.7 points and 462 yards per game last year. Taylor Lamb threw for 2,381 yards with 17 touchdowns and 9 interceptions while also rushing for 483 yards and 4 touchdowns. The top two rushers, Marcus Cox (1,415 yards and 19 touchdowns) and Terrence Upshaw (573 yards and 4 touchdowns) are back as well. The top five receivers also return though the top two receivers, Malachi Jones and Simms McElfresh, will need to have better production. Jones caught 36 passes for 585 yards and 3 touchdowns while McElfresh had 42 catches for 484 yards and 5 touchdowns. Four starters return on the offensive line as well, which only helps. This offense looks scary and could be even scarier if the passing game improves.

The defense is a mirror image of the offense in that ten starters return. The defense gave up 27.3 points and 348 yards per game with the top six tacklers back. The entire line remains intact after allowing 152 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. Ronald Blair will be at one of the end spots after recording 43 tackles, 6 sacks, and 7 tackles for loss. All four linebackers are returning as well in this 3-4 scheme. John Law led the team in tackles with 91, but also recorded 2 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and an interception. The secondary has three of the four starters back after giving up 195 yards and allowing 59% completions. The defense should be just as good this year.

App State will face FCS Howard opening week before going on the road to face Clemson. They will have a bye week before facing Old Dominion on the road and Wyoming at home to end their non-conference schedule. App State has several tough games in conference that may prevent them from winning the title. They have UL-Monroe (road) and Georgia Southern (home) in a span of five days from October 17 to October 22. They also have to face Arkansas State and UL-Lafayette, but get both of those at home. It is tough to pick App State fourth with the amount of experience returning, but they should make their first bowl game in school history at the very least.

5. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

Louisiana-Monroe has been to only one bowl game in school history and that was a 45-14 loss in 2012 to Ohio in the Independence Bowl. The Warhawks have gone downhill since then with a 6-6 record in 2013 and 4-8 record in 2014. This season must provide a better result if Todd Berry hopes to stick around for 2016.

The offense returns six starters from a unit that produced only 20.1 points and 349 yards per game. The rushing game was abysmal with only 70 yards per game. Both the top passer and rusher are gone, but the running back production is easy to replace given the awful stats put up. Brayle Brown is expected to be the starting quarterback , but he went 14 of 24 for 172 yards with a touchdown and interception in backup duty. Brown will have two of the top receivers back in Rashon Caeser (77 catches for 872 yards and 3 touchdowns) as well as Ajalen Holley (57 catches for 863 yards and 7 touchdowns) to help him out. Three starters are back on the line and assuming the running game has better production (how can they not?) the offense will be better even with a new quarterback.

The defense will have eight starters back after a solid season in 2014 when they gave up 26.3 points and 373 yards per game. Two of the three defensive linemen return and the guy to watch out for is Gerrand Johnson. As a nose tackle, he led ULM with 93 tackles while also recording 6 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Three of the four linebackers return in Mitch Lane, Hunter Kissinger, and Michael Johnson, which is a good sign because they were the second, third, and fourth leading tacklers respectively last year. The secondary also has three starters back with Trey Caldwell at one of the cornerback spots. He was was solid with 42 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 8 pass breakups, and an interception. The ULM defense should be one of the best in the Sun Belt.

Louisiana-Monroe has five non-conference games spread over the course of the season thanks to a trip to Hawaii. They open with a road game at Georgia before a home date against Nicholls State. A bye week leads into a game at Alabama before conference play commences. ULM will travel to face Tulsa (Oct. 10) and Hawaii (Nov. 28) later in the season. The Warhawks have quite a few tough in-conference games with Georgia Southern (home), Appalachian State (home), UL-Lafayette (road), Arkansas State (home), and Texas State (home) all on the slate. That daunting schedule may keep them from finishing higher in the Sun Belt.

6. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns

Since Mark Hudspeth took over Louisiana-Lafayette in 2011 there have been two constants each year: a 9-4 record for the year and a win in the New Orleans Bowl. Will 2015 be a carbon copy of the first four years under Hudspeth?

The offense has six starters back, but the loss of Terrance Broadway will hurt the team. Brooks Haack threw for 179 yards and 2 touchdowns in backup duty last year and will probably not match the ability of Broadway. Elijah McGuire is back after running for 1,264 yards and 14 touchdowns and will be the main back in this offense. McGuire is also the top leading receiver returning after having 45 catches for 468 yards and 2 touchdowns. The top returning wide receiver is Al Riles who had 34 catches for 354 yards and a touchdown. Three offensive linemen also return, but the offense will struggle at times with many new personnel at the skills positions.

The defense also has six starters back after allowing 26 points and 406 yards per game in 2014. Only the second and seventh leading tacklers return from the top eight.The defensive line has only Jacoby Briscoe back from last year, but he started just four games. Dominique Tovell was the second leading tackler last year with 67 stops, 2.5 sacks, and 6.5 tackles for loss and will be leading the linebackers. Two starters are back in the secondary and should improve on their 65% completions allowed. The defense will probably allow similar numbers to last year.

ULL will open the season with a road game against Kentucky and then welcome Northwestern State home. After a bye, ULL will face Akron at home and then play Louisiana Tech on the road. In conference, ULL has several tough games to start conference play. They face Texas State at home and then take on Arkansas State on the road. They also have UL-Monroe (home) and Appalachian State (road). UL-Lafayette will be looking for a fifth straight bowl game and have a good shot at getting there.

7. New Mexico State Aggies

New Mexico State was a member of the Sun Belt from 2000 through 2004 before joining the WAC for the 2005 season. They rejoined the Sun Belt in 2014 and went 2-10 in both of Doug Martin’s first two seasons. 2015 provides Martin with his most experienced team.

The offense made good strides in 2014. They put up 24.5 points and 421 yards per game with eight starters back in the fold. Eight starters are back in 2015 including the top skills players. Quarterback Tyler Rogers threw for 2,779 yards with 19 touchdowns, but had an incredibly high 23 interceptions as well. Larry Rose ran for 1,102 yards and 9 touchdowns despite missing time due to a sprained MCL. Teldrick Morgan caught 903 yards and 7 touchdowns on 75 receptions and will the be the top target once again. With four starters back on the offensive line as well, the Aggies can expect to have another improvement in the offensive numbers in 2015.

The defense has not been good for Martin in his first two years. In 2013, the unit allowed 44.6 points and 550 yards per game, but did improve in 2014 to 39.1 points and 484 yards per game. 2015 will have ten starters back for the defense with the only loss on the line. The line produced only five sacks in 2014 and will need to improve on that. The linebackers return and that is good thing for the Aggies because Rodney Butler (119 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss), Derek Ibekwe (102 tackles and 4 tackles for loss), and Dalton Herrington (85 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 tackles for loss) were the team’s top three tacklers. The secondary was not too bad last year giving up 175 yards and 62.5% completions. The defense should continue to improve overall, but could make a big step forward if the line surprises with better rush defense.

The Aggies will open with a road game at Florida before starting Sun Belt play in week two against Georgia State at home. They will face rival UTEP at home in week three and complete their non-conference schedule after a bye week with road games at New Mexico and Ole Miss. In conference, they will have to face Georgia Southern (road), Texas State (road), UL-Lafayette (road), Arkansas State (home), and UL-Monroe (road). The Aggies are a young team and should be able to continue improving while winning more than two games in 2015.

8. South Alabama Jaguars

South Alabama has been a member of the Sun Belt since 2012 and made their first bowl game last year against Bowling Green in the Camellia Bowl. Joey Jones has been with South Alabama since they started back in 2009 while 2015 will probably be the most interesting season to date with only five total starters returning.

South Alabama has only three starters back on offense, but have a few UAB transfers coming in as well. Quarterback Cody Clements is one of those UAB transfers and he will also have his offensive coordinator coming over as well. Clements threw for 2,227 yards with 14 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in 2014. The duo of Xavier Johnson (438 yards and a touchdown) and Terrance Timmons (403 yards and 4 touchdowns) are returning at running back, but may be beat out by Dami Ayoola. The top wideout is also gone, but Danny Woodson (former Alabama player) caught 30 passes for 382 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. The UAB duo of DJ Vinson and Josh Magee are looking to team up with their former quarterback. There is another UAB transfer on the offensive line, which returns only two starters. The offense averaged 22.5 points and 376 yards last year and will probably be able to at least match that in 2015.

The defense has only two starters back from a unit that allowed 26.4 points and 399 yards per game. The defensive line is bereft of experienced starters with none back. The linebacker unit is the same, but does add in UAB transfer Kalen Jackson as well as Texas Tech transfer Blake Dees. The two starters back on defense reside in the secondary with Roman Buchanan and Antonio Carter. Buchanan was third on the team in tackles with 74 while also recording 3.5 tackles for loss and 7 pass breakups. The defense has little experience and will likely struggle to meet last year’s numbers.

South Alabama opens their season with Gardner-Webb at home before embarking on a two game road trip against Nebraska and San Diego State. They wrap up conference play against North Carolina State. They have a tough games in Sun Belt play against Arkansas State (home), Texas State (road), UL-Lafayette (home), Georgia Southern (road), and Appalachian State (home). South Alabama appears headed for a down year with only five starters back.

9. Troy Trojans

Troy has not been to a bowl game since 2010 when the destroyed Ohio in the New Orleans Bowl 48-21. Larry Blakeney had been head coach of Troy since 1991, but they have opted to move on and take Neal Brown in as their top man.

Troy was not very good on offense last year with only 21.8 points and 363 yards per game. Seven starters return in the first year under Brown’s offense. Brandon Silvers threw for 1,836 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions while completing 70.5% of his passes. The top two running backs also return with Brandon Burks and Jordan Chunn. Burks ran for 584 yards and 3 touchdowns while Chunn ran for 505 yards and 6 touchdowns. The top wideout is also back in Bryan Holmes (34 catches for 474 yards and 5 touchdowns), but the production will need to improve from that unit. There are two starters back, but the offense should be able to match last year’s production at least in 2015.

Six starters are back from a unit that allowed 36.2 points and 454 yards per game in 2014. The defensive line has three starters back, but gave up 246 rushing yards per game in 2014. End Jamal Stadom was third on the team in tackles with 55 while also recording 4.5 sacks and 2 tackles for loss. The three starting linebackers are gone from last year’s team, but Terris Lewis was able to start three games en route to recording 25 tackles despite playing only five games. The secondary returns two starters in JaQuadrian Lewis and Montres Kitchens while also adding in UAB transfer LaMarcus Farmer. The secondary should be solid again in 2015 after allowing 208 passing yards per game in 2014. The defense should improve in 2015 despite a new head coach.

Troy does not have an easy non-conference schedule. They open with a road game at North Carolina State, come home to face FCS Charleston Southern, and then goes on the road again to Wisconsin. They also face Mississippi State in Starkville on October 10. In conference, Troy will face Appalachian State (road), UL-Monroe (home), Georgia Southern (home), and UL-Lafayette (road). They also take on South Alabama (home) and New Mexico State (road) that could determine how high they finish. Troy should see improvement in 2015, but not good enough to make a bowl game.

10. Idaho Vandals

Idaho has not had sustained success since the 1990s and have only two bowl game appearances in school history. Their last, a 43-42 win over Bowling Green, came in the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl. Paul Petrino took over a very bad team and has gone a combined 2-21 in his first two years.

The offense will have six starters back from a unit that improved between 2013 and 2014. The offense put up only 18.2 points per game in 2013, but saw that number increase to 25 last year. Quarterback Matt Linehan threw for 2,540 yards with 11 touchdowns, but also threw 18 interceptions. Elijhaa Penny ran for 589 yards and 12 touchdowns while splitting the carries and is likely to earn the number one reps. The wideouts see the top three depart from 2014, but back on the team is Dezmon Epps. Epps had 980 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2013. There are three starters back on the line and the Idaho offense should continue to improve.

The defense also has six starters back. Like the offense, they have also improved in Petrino’s first two seasons. They allowed 46.8 points and 529 yards per game in 2013 while dropping those numbers to 37.3 points and 463 yards per game. The two interior linemen return led by Quinton Bradley. Bradley had 52 tackles, 6 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss last season. Two linebackers return including 2014’s leading tackler Marc Millan. Millan had 102 tackles, 2 sacks, and 13 tackles for loss. The secondary has Jayshawn Jordan at cornerback and Russell Siavii returning. The defense will continue to improve this year, but may hold the Vandals back from doing even better.

Idaho will open their season with Ohio at home before a road game at USC and then another home game against Wofford. They will also face Auburn on the road on November 21. In conference, they have a very tough schedule with games against Georgia Southern (home), Arkansas State (road), UL-Monroe (home), Appalachian State (home), and Texas State (home). Idaho should be able to easily match two wins in 2015, which is the total number of wins under Petrino entering the season.

11. Georgia State Panthers

Georgia State started their football program in 2008 and played their first season in 2010. They went 9-13 in their first two season facing mainly FCS competition. Since joining the FCS’ Colonial Athletic Association in 2012 and then the Sun Belt in 2013, they have a combined record of 2-33. Trent Miles will be in his third season at the helm of Georgia State in 2015.

Miles will eight starters back on offense, but that is only the second highest number of returning starters on offense under his regime (9 in 2013). Nick Arbuckle won the starting job and threw for 3,283 yards with 23 touchdowns and 17 interception. He will be back to throw the ball all over the yard, but could use help from his tandem of running backs in Marcus Coffey and Kyler Neal. Coffey only ran for 354 yards and 3 touchdowns while Neal ran for 209 yards and a score (Neal suffered an MCL injury that caused him to miss the last 8 games. Those two were also the leading rushers on the team. Arbuckle will have his top two receivers from 2014 back with Donovan Harden (60 catches for 885 yards and 7 touchdowns) and Robert Davis (50 catches for 732 yards and 2 touchdowns). The offense put up 22.7 points and 375 yards per game in 2014. If the running game improves even slightly, they should easily surpass those numbers.

The defense was bad last year with only four returning starters. The unit gave up 43.3 points and 497 yards per game. Miles will have his most experienced defense in 2015 with nine starters returning. The entire defensive line is back including the entire two deep in this 3-4 defense. After giving up 303 yards rushing per game, it is safe to say GSU can only improve there. At linebacker, Joseph Peterson is back after leading the team in tackles with 93. He also added 3 sacks, 1 tackle for loss, and an interception. He will be joined by former Michigan player Kaleb Ringer. The secondary has all four starters back, but was not as bad as the numbers would indicate. They gave up only 194 passing yards per game, but did allow 68.1% completions against them. The defense should get better in 2015 compared to 2014.

Georgia State does have a chance to win a few games in 2015. They open with Charlotte at home before back-to-back road games at New Mexico State and Oregon. They face Liberty at home and then also face Ball State on the road to close out their non-conference schedule. The conference portion of their slate is daunting with the likes of Appalachian State, Arkansas State, UL-Lafayette, Texas State, South Alabama, Troy, and Georgia Southern. Georgia State will need an upset or two in order to break their three year double digit loss column streak.

Overview

The Sun Belt Conference is shaping up to be a wide-open race in 2015. Arkansas State, Texas State, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Louisiana-Monroe, and Louisiana-Lafayette could come out and win the conference. New Mexico State and South Alabama will look to finish in the middle of the pack while Troy, Idaho, and Georgia State will battle it out for the bottom spot. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Arkansas State

2. Texas State

3. Georgia Southern

4. Appalachian State

5. Louisiana-Monroe

6. Louisiana-Lafayette

7. New Mexico State

8. South Alabama

9. Troy

10. Idaho

11. Georgia State

Be sure to check out the FBS Independents preview as well as the next preview on Friday. We will be looking at the Big 12 Conference then.