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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: AAC East

Tommy Tuberville has finish third and first in his first two years with Cincinnati. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)
Tommy Tuberville has finish third and first in his first two years with Cincinnati. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: AAC East

Part seven of the Sports Enthusiasts’ College Football Preview delves into The American with a specific look at the East Division. Below is a schedule of the 2015 College Football Preview.

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

Sun Belt – July 28

FBS Independents – 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 AAC’s East Division.

1. Temple Owls

It has been a wild ride for the Temple football program. They have gone from the Big East in 2004 to Independent status in 2005 to the MAC from 2007 through 2011. They then went back to the Big East for the 2012 season before the name change to The American beginning in 2013. Matt Rhule is in his third season and led Temple to a 2-10 record in 2013 before improving them to 6-6 last year.

2015 will easily be Rhule’s most experienced team. He has nine starters back on offense and the biggest loss was top wide receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick had 53 catches for 730 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2014. Quarterback PJ Walker returns after putting up 2,317 yards with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last year. Walker was more inconsistent last year than in 2013 and he will need to develop some receivers to have a better season. Running back Jahad Thomas ran for 384 yards as the top rusher in 2014, which will need to be improved upon drastically. He could be replaced by freshman TJ Simmons or sophomore Zaire Williams. With all five starters back on the offensive line, there should be no reason the offense cannot produce the highest output under Rhule.

In 2014, the defense made the biggest strides under Rhule. They gave up 17.5 points and 347 yards per game last year after giving up 29.8 points and 474 yards in 2013. 2015 could be even better with 10 starters back. There is not much to say about the defense other than their only loss was at strong safety, but the replacement, Will Hayes, started seven games in 2014 at three different positions. Linebacker Tyler Matakevich was easily the team’s leading tackler after recording 117 stops, 1.5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups, and an interception. The defense will be excellent again in 2015.

Temple opens the season with a home game against Penn State (Rhule’s alma mater) before back-to-back road games against Cincinnati and Massachusetts. They face Charlotte on the road after a bye week and also have Notre Dame coming to town on Halloween to complete their non-conference schedule. They have to play Memphis from the West, but get them at home and also get SMU (road) and Tulane (home) from the West Division. As for the East opponents, they will face Cincinnati and East Carolina on the road while facing Central Florida at home. It is weird to say this, but Temple looks like the team to beat in the East with their defense.

2. Central Florida Knights

George O’Leary has been magnificent at Central Florida including leading the Knights to the 2013 Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor. 2014 was a step back for UCF, but 2015 could go either way.

The offense returns five starters, but the big losses were at wide receiver where the top four from 2014 are gone. The biggest loss is Breshad Perriman after his 50 catches for 1,044 yards and 9 touchdowns. UCF does return quarterback Justin Holman and he threw for 2,952 yards with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Also returning are running backs William Stanback (697 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Dontravious Wilson (347 yards and 3 touchdowns). Three linemen also return and the offense could do well this year if a few receivers are developed.

The defense has only four starters back in 2015 after giving up 19.2 points and 299 yards per game last year. The strength this year will be on the defensive line with three starters returning after giving up only 104 yards rushing and 3.2 yards per carry in 2014. Thomas Niles will be one of the ends after recording 49 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss last year. They will need to be solid because the back seven return only one starter in linebacker Chequan Burkett. He recorded 40 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss last year. The secondary losses 148 career starts as well as all four starters, which is going to hurt the Knights. It will be tough to produce the same overall numbers in 2015 as they did in 2014.

Central Florida opens with Florida International (home), Stanford (road), Furman (home), and South Carolina (road) to start the season before beginning AAC play. From the West, they will play Tulane and Tulsa on the road while getting Houston at home. In division play, they will have Temple and Cincinnati at home and play East Carolina at home. O’Leary has stout defenses even when there are not a lot of starters returning (i.e. 2011 with 4 starters returning UCF allowed 18.3 points and 303 yards per game). That makes UCF dangerous to contend for the division title.

3. Cincinnati Bearcats

Tommy Tuberville left Texas Tech after the 2012 season to come to Cincinnati. 2015 will be his third year and he has led the Bearcats to a record of 9-4 in each of this first two seasons. 2015 is also a season of change for The American Conference, as they are now divided into two divisions. How will Tuberville do in the inaugural season of the East?

On offense, there are eight starter back this year led by quarterback Gunner Kiel. Kiel threw for 3,254 yards, 31 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions despite some injury issues and he will have seven of his top eight receivers back from 2014. The top threats are Shaq Washington, who had 66 catches for 761 yards and 4 touchdowns and MeKale McKay, who had 44 catches for 725 yards and 8 touchdowns. Mike Boone returns at running after running for 650 yards with 9 touchdowns as a freshman despite being the #2 guy. The offense will be explosive again in 2015.

The defensive side of the ball sees only five starters return with the bulk of the losses coming in the front seven. Only Silverberry Mouhon returns on the line after recording 45 tackles, 4 sacks, and 1 tackle for loss. It is a similar story with the linebackers as only Leviticus Payne is back and he recorded 57 tackles, 2 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and 1 interception last year. The secondary is undoubtedly the strength going into the season with three starters back led by Zach Edwards. Edwards was second on the team in tackles with 121 and also recorded 3.5 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense have up 27.2 points and 439 yards per game in 2014 and it looks like that might happen again this year.

It will be an interesting start to the season for Cincinnati with two conference games in the first four weeks. They open with Alabama A&M and Temple at home before a road trip to Miami (OH). They have a quick turnaround of five days to face Memphis on the road and then get Miami (FL) at home on October 1. They have another road trip to BYU two weeks later after a bye. They also have to face Houston on the road out of the West. It will be another winning season for Tuberville, but the games against Central Florida (home), Temple, and East Carolina (road) as well as if the offense can outscore the opponents will decide where they finish.

4. East Carolina Pirates

A simple look at the 8-5 record for East Carolina in 2014 would suggest it was a slightly above average season for them. However, it was much bigger than the record indicates with wins over then #17 Virginia Tech on the road 28-21 and at home to North Carolina 70-41 in back-to-back weeks. Ruffin McNeill enters his sixth year in charge of his alma mater after compiling a 37-27 record. Let’s see what is in store for the Pirates.

The offense brings back six starters, but the losses are big at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. Shane Carden threw for over 4,700 yards in 2014 and his main targets were Justin Hardy (121 catches for 1,494 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Cam Worthy (55 catches for 1,106 yards and 4 touchdowns). Kurt Benkert will take over at QB, but he has only throw 10 passes in his collegiate career. While the losses of the top two receivers will hurt, Isaiah Jones put up some good numbers in 2014 with 81 catches for 830 yards and 5 touchdowns. Running back is probably the easiest of the skill positions to replace for ECU with Chris Hairston running for 528 yards and 2 touchdowns on only 79 carries last year. The offensive line does return four starters, which should provide good running lanes and ample time to the QB. However, the offense will not be as potent this season as it was in 2014.

The defense will have five starters back from a unit that allowed 25.8 points and 367 yards per game last year. That was done with only three returning starters for the 2014 season. Defensive line returns only one starter from last year, but Terrell Stanley is back after starting 12 games in 2013 and then missing all of 2014. Linebacker has two starters returning led by Zeek Bigger. Bigger had an astounding 140 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 4 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The secondary will have two starters back including 2014 1st Team ACC cornerback Josh Hawkins. Hawkins had 44 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 11 pass breakups, and 5 interceptions. The defense should produce similar numbers as they did in 2014.

East Carolina has FCS Towson to start the season before a road trip to Florida and another road trip to Navy to start conference play. They face Virginia Tech at home before back-to-back road games again with SMU and BYU on the schedule. The other team from the West, in addition to Navy and SMU, is Tulsa on October 17 at home. ECU faces fellow East contenders Temple and Cincinnati at home while getting Central Florida on the road. The final two weekends consist of UCF and Cincinnati. East Carolina will need to get their offense going right away if they are to challenge for the East, but look very good to reach another bowl game in 2014.

5. South Florida Bulls

2015 will be year three of Willie Taggart’s reign at South Florida. He has gone a combined 6-18 in his first two seasons, but the offense and defense have both improved in those two seasons.

In 2015, the offense has only four starters back and that will make it a bit harder to continue improving the offense. 2014’s starting quarterback Mike White is gone after transferring from the program and that leaves a battle between sophomore Quinton Flowers and former Penn State player Steven Bench. White threw for only 1,639 yards with 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions last year so the new QB should be able to top those stats. Marlon Mack will be the workhorse running back after running for 1,041 yards and 9 touchdowns as a true freshman. Mack also was named to the 1st Team AAC last year. The top wide receiver is gone, but Rodney Adams is back after catching 23 passes for 323 yards and 2 touchdowns. Despite the low amount of returning starters the offense should produce more than the 17.2 points and 305 yards per game it did in 2014.

The defense is in a better situation with seven starters back including all of the top five tackles from a year ago. There is only one returning defensive lineman in Eric Lee, but both linebackers return in this 4-2-5 system. One of those linebackers, Nigel Harris, was second on the team with 77 tackles, 2 sacks, and 8.5 tackles for loss. Three of the back five starters return from a unit that gave up 220 yards passing in 2014. Jamie Byrd was the top tackler in 2014 with 95 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions and he will be expected to help out in large volume again. The defense gave up 27 points and 403 yards per game last year and should improve on that this year.

South Florida opens with Florida A&M at home before back-to-back road trips to ACC teams Florida State and Maryland. They end their non-conference schedule against a third ACC team in Syracuse on October 10. From the West, USF will face contenders in Memphis (home) and Navy (road) as well as SMU (home). The game at Connecticut on October 17 is likely to decide who finishes last in The American’s East division. USF is probably a year away from contending for a bowl game appearance.

6. Connecticut Huskies

Bob Diaco took over at Connecticut in 2014 after Paul Pasqualoni was let go just after the start of the 2013 season. He went 2-10 in 2014 with only 12 returning starters on his team and UConn has not been to a bowl game since 2010 when they faced Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl (they lost 48-20).

Six starters are back for Diaco from an offense that scored 15.5 points and gained 276 yards per game last year. Quarterback Chandler Whitmer has departed while Tim Boyle threw for 335 yards with 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions last season. Boyle will most likely play second fiddle again this year as North Carolina State transfer Bryant Shirreffs is likely to win the starting job. The running game only averaged 107 yards per game in 2014 and that should improve with four of the top five backs returning. Wide receiver sees the top two guys depart while Noel Thomas (26 catches for 305 yards and 4 touchdowns) is one of the top targets. The offense should be better in 2015.

The defense gave up 29.8 points and 379 yards per game in 2014 with six starters back. In 2015, there will be eight returning starters with two on the defensive line and the top four tacklers are back as well on the line. Linebacker looks like an excellent unit for UConn with former Florida transfer Graham Stewart (94 tackles, 2 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss), Marquise Vann (105 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss), and Florida State transfer EJ Levenberry all expected to start. Byron Jones is gone from the secondary, but three starters return to help make this a solid unit. The defense looks like it will improve in 2015 as well.

UConn opens the 2015 season with home games against Villanova and Army. The travel to face Missouri before a home game against Navy and another road game against BYU. From the West, they will have the aforementioned Navy, but also Tulane (road) and Houston (home). As stated before, the game against South Florida on October 17 will most likely decide the AAC East’s bottom team. Diaco does have this team headed in the right direction.

Overview

The American Athletic Conference’s East division looks incredibly competitive. Any one of four – Temple, Cincinnati, Central Florida, or East Carolina – can win the division. South Florida and Connecticut will be battling to stay out of the cellar. Below is a recap of the predicted order of finish.

1. Temple

2. Central Florida

3. Cincinnati

4. East Carolina

5. South Florida

6. Connecticut

Check back on Friday, July 24 for The American’s West Division preview as well as the predicted winner of the conference championship game.