1 Thing Opponents Should Fear About Every Power 5 College Football Team in 2015

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2015

1 Thing Opponents Should Fear About Every Power 5 College Football Team in 2015

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    Read the transcript of any college football coach's press conference previewing his team's upcoming opponent, and you'll get a healthy dose of things he's wary of about that impending matchup. A lot of this is just hyperbole, trying to make the foe seem tougher in an effort to show humility, but not all of it.

    Fear is real, even in football, because there's something about every team that makes it dangerous.

    It could be a specific player, a position group, a style of offense/defense or that team's nothing-to-lose mindset. Whatever it is, it's something that cannot be discounted and leads to unease.

    Looking at what went down in 2014 and what's expected to happen this upcoming season, we've picked out one thing from each power-conference team (and Notre Dame) that its opponents should be worrying about this offseason.


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    The defensive line

    Alabama has to find a new quarterback, a No. 1 receiver and an anchor in the secondary to replace its many departed stars. But one place where the Crimson Tide don't have to make any changes is on the defensive line, as its three-man unit returns completely intact and figures to be one of the best in the country.

    Defensive end Jarran Reed opted not to turn pro so he could play his senior year, and combined with junior defensive end Jonathan Allen and junior tackle A'Shawn Robinson, the Tide bring back a wealth of experience. And this extends into the second team, with senior D.J. Pettway and a wealth of young reserves to rotate in.

    Alabama was fourth in rushing defense and 12th in total defense last year, and both rankings figure to hold steady or improve in 2015.


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    Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson played hurt

    Despite setting freshman school records for passing and rushing, Arizona's young offensive stars might have put up even bigger numbers in 2014 if not for injuries that slowed their production.

    Quarterback Anu Solomon threw for 3,793 yards and 28 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman, yet a foot injury suffered in mid-November led to some diminished returns of the final month of the regular season. He rebounded to throw for 335 yards in the Fiesta Bowl, but without the ability to move as well he had only 32 rushing yards on 23 carries that included eight sacks.

    True freshman Nick Wilson ran for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns, helping the Wildcats move on from the record-setting career of Ka'Deem Carey. Yet Wilson missed a game and was limited in two others because of an ankle injury.

    Assuming both can avoid getting hurt this fall, their numbers figure to only go up.

Arizona State

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    D.J. Foster catches better than he rushes

    With an offense that puts a premium on ball-carriers being able to make plays in open space, D.J. Foster made a name for himself as much as a receiver as a running back in 2014. And with the Sun Devils having other promising rushers to give carries to, Foster has been converted to a receiver for his senior year.

    "For me I'd rather be a receiver that can play running back than a running back that can play receiver," Foster told Justin Janssen of the State Press.

    Last season Foster led ASU with 1,081 yards and nine touchdowns but was also second in receiving, catching 62 passes for 688 yards and three TDs. The Sun Devils lost top wideout Jaelen Strong to the NFL draft, and while the 5'11", 205-pound Foster won't necessarily fit that role, he provides more value as a receiver than in the backfield.

    ASU will turn to sophomores Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, who combined for 604 yards and seven touchdowns, as the lead rushers.


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    Fresh legs in the running game

    With the enormous size that Arkansas has on its offensive line, it stands to reason that any halfway decent running back could rush for 1,000 yards thanks to the holes created up front. The Razorbacks had two 1,000-yard rushers in 2014, both of whom could have gone for much more if they were alone in the backfield.

    But that splitting of carries will be a huge plus for Arkansas this fall because senior Jonathan Williams and junior Alex Collins come into this season without much wear on their tires.

    Williams has run 406 times in three seasons, while Collins has 394 career carries. Last season, neither player had more than 27 rushes in a single game, even with Arkansas averaging 43 run plays per game.


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    Jeremy Johnson has a great arm

    As great as Nick Marshall was as Auburn's quarterback the previous two seasons, his role was more as a facilitator of the run-first offense with passing plays thrown in when most appropriate. When the Tigers were forced to throw, though, the success wasn't always there for Marshall.

    Expect a completely different result from Jeremy Johnson, who figures to succeed Marshall based on his experience—he started in place of Marshall for one game last year—and the kind of accuracy that Auburn needs to have its passing game respected.

    "Johnson presents several different elements to (Gus) Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee's offensive playbook, a pass-first player with an ability to read defenses while possessing the arm strength to throw into tight coverages," wrote Brad Crawford of Saturday Down South.

    Johnson completed 12 of 16 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns in the first half of Auburn's 2014 season opener and for the year completed 75.7 percent of his throws.


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    Shawn Oakman still looms

    Already an imposing figure on the end of Baylor's defensive line, Shawn Oakman became an Internet sensation in January after a photo of him from the Cotton Bowl was turned into a meme that got a lot of traction.

    Expect more online raving this season with the return of Oakman, the 6'9", 275-pound defensive end who opted against turning pro to play his senior year for the Bears. Last year he had 11 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, not to mention countless looks of fear from opposing offensive linemen tasked with keeping him from getting around the edge.

    Oakman also forced three fumbles and broke up three passes, and similar domination is expected in 2015.

Boston College

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    Steve Addazio has rebuilding mastered

    When he decided to leave Temple for a bigger job, Steve Addazio understood what he was dealing with at Boston College. The Eagles were 2-10 the year before, yet he installed his style and led them to seven wins and a bowl bid in 2013.

    BC posted the same record in 2014, despite it having to replace its quarterback, top receiver and a 2,000-yard rusher from the previous team.

    Now the Eagles must completely rebuild their offensive line, with all five blockers graduating, as well as replace a mobile quarterback in 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Murphy. It might seem like a tall task, but Addazio has already proved he can make a lot out of a little.


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    Jared Goff's arm keeps getting better

    With 1,038 career passes in just two seasons, California's Jared Goff has already thrown more than some college quarterbacks do in an entire career. It's the nature of the Golden Bears' Air Raid offense, which ranked sixth in the country last season at 347 yards per game.

    Goff has managed to stay mostly healthy, though a shoulder injury knocked him out of the 2013 season finale during his freshman year. He rebounded from that to throw for 3,973 yards and 35 touchdowns last season, with only seven interceptions in 529 attempts and a solid 62.1 percent completion rate.

    Goff is the player Cal's offense is built around, and he has shown no signs of wearing down despite the heavy use.


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    Deshaun Watson heals really fast

    Though he might have been injury-prone during his freshman year, Deshaun Watson showed that the healthy version of him is going to be something special to watch for the next few seasons. He also displayed an innate ability to bounce back from getting hurt, returning quickly from a broken hand and also playing through a torn ACL.

    Now Watson is recovering from surgery for that torn ligament, which caused him to miss Clemson's bowl victory over Oklahoma. A normal rehab schedule calls for about nine months away from the game, yet the Tigers figure to have Watson ready for fall camp after showing amazing progress to this point.

    "He is not your normal player," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told Scott Keepfer of The Greenville News. "He is a month or two ahead of where anyone else would be."

    Watson threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns, completing 67.9 percent of his passes, and also ran for 200 yards and five TDs as a true freshman.


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    The Buffaloes play close games

    Colorado's 2-10 record in 2014 was tied with Iowa State for the worst record of any power-conference team, and its 0-9 record in the Pac-12 was its first winless mark in conference play since 1915. Yet look closer at the Buffaloes' results, and they weren't as bad a team as their record would indicate.

    While there were blowouts on the road against Oregon and USC, at home the Buffaloes were much harder to deal with. Their five home losses were by an average of 8.2 points, including a three-point loss in double overtime to UCLA. Colorado also lost by a field goal in two OTs at California, one of five games decided by one score or less.

    Colorado brings back 15 starters this season, so after having a lot of close losses last year this group could be in line to break through with a few more victories.


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    DeVon Edwards can do a lot

    He led Duke in tackles and provided great value as a kick returner in 2014, and that was just the start of what DeVon Edwards can do.

    As a sophomore, the 5'9", 175-pound Edwards had 133 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks along with an interception and five forced fumbles. His work on defense often set up the Blue Devils to get great field position on punts, but if he wasn't able to stop the opponents from scoring he'd make up for it on the ensuing kickoff.

    Edwards averaged 25.7 yards per return, scoring a touchdown and collecting 160 return yards in Duke's wild 51-48 win over Pittsburgh.


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    Jim McElwain can do a lot with a little

    When he took the Colorado State job in late 2011, Jim McElwain inherited an offense that was 87th in the nation in yards per game and averaged 21.4 points while going 3-9. Last year the Rams were 19th in total offense and scored 33.9 points per game en route to a 10-3 record.

    And that was with the kind of talent that schools in the Mountain West have to work with. Now McElwain has SEC-level players, and while his first season might have some bumps in the road, it won't be long before he's got the Gators rolling on offense.

    In 2014 Florida was 96th in total offense, and four starting offensive linemen from that team have departed. McElwain's first recruiting class didn't feature many notable offensive players, but don't think that means he won't be able to turn what's on the roster into winners.

Florida State

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    Dalvin Cook will have a full offseason to build off

    After enrolling early in 2014, Dalvin Cook's pursuit of making an instant impact for Florida State hit a major snag last spring when he suffered a freak injury away from the football field. A fall on a staircase led to Cook needing surgery, knocking him out of spring practice and slowing his progress during the summer.

    As a result, Cook didn't get much action in the Seminoles' first five games. But once he got a chance to show off his talents, the 6'0", 200-pound rusher excelled by gaining 122 yards in his first start and finishing with 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns.

    Now he'll enter his sophomore year with (hopefully) a full offseason to train and prepare for the season ahead. And with FSU searching for a new quarterback, Cook's production will be even more important.


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    Nick Chubb is only a sophomore

    If the NFL allowed players to apply for the draft after one year of college, like with basketball, odds are that Nick Chubb would have been a hot commodity and a strong candidate to turn pro after the 2014 season. Instead, he's required to spend another two years in school before he can get drafted, which means SEC defenses have two more years to deal with him.

    They couldn't handle the true freshman last year, especially when he took over the starting role from Todd Gurley and averaged 165.4 yards over the final eight games.

    The 5'10", 228-pound Chubb finished with 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns, ending with a masterful 266-yard, two-TD effort in the Belk Bowl victory against Louisville.

Georgia Tech

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    The option is still legal

    Even amid last year's breakout performance by Georgia Tech's offense, coach Paul Johnson still felt it necessary to defend the triple-option that he has run at every stop in his career.

    "Even after all these years, there was still some pleasure in administering a good old scoreboard education for those who dismiss or discredit the offense he's won with Saturday after Saturday, all the way to the highest level of college football," Dan Wolken of USA Today wrote.

    The Yellow Jackets played in the ACC title game for the second time in three years in 2014 then went on to run over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. They ranked second nationally in rushing, at 342.1 yards per game, scoring 49 touchdowns on the ground.

    Most of the ball-carriers and several of the top linemen from that team have graduated, but Tech brings back quarterback and leading rusher Justin Thomas. It also has Johnson's fire and desire to prove that his triple-option attack can still get it done.


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    Mike Dudek is just getting started

    Injuries led to Illinois having to use three different quarterbacks last season, each with varying levels of ability and experience. The one thing they all had in common, though, was their No. 1 option to throw to.

    Mike Dudek's 76 receptions in 2014 were the second most by any freshman in FBS, and his 1,038 yards were also second-best among first-year players. He had six touchdowns but didn't score one in his breakout game, when he had 11 receptions for 115 yards in Illinois' 16-14 victory over Penn State that helped get the Fighting Illini into a bowl.

    Dudek, at 5'11" and 185 pounds, doesn't have the big body you'd normally find from a No. 1 receiver. But his stats show that size doesn't always matter.


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    The Hoosiers hit the transfer lottery

    UAB's loss was Indiana's gain, as the decision by the Conference USA school to dissolve its football program meant that Blazers with eligibility remaining could transfer anywhere without having to sit out a season.

    The top prize from that group was running back Jordan Howard, who ran for 1,587 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore and could have ended up anywhere in 2015 because of that production. His final options were Vanderbilt and Indiana, and he chose the Hoosiers because of whom he would be replacing.

    "It was big with them having a 2,000-yard running back the previous year and most of the offense coming back," Howard told Josh Moyer of ESPN.com, referring to departed junior Tevin Coleman.

    Indiana only won four games despite Coleman rushing for 2,036 yards, but coach Kevin Wilson held on to his job. He gets a chance to prove his bosses were wise to keep him, and Howard figures to be a big part of what he does on offense this season.


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    A seemingly endless supply of linemen

    Iowa has both an offensive tackle and a defensive tackle projected among the top 50 picks in the 2015 NFL draft, according to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller. Those are huge losses for the Hawkeyes to deal with for the upcoming season, but it's not like the cupboard is bare.

    The Hawkeyes actually graduated six offensive and defensive linemen who contributed to last season's 7-6 team, yet the next wave of blockers and tacklers are ready to step in and fill those holes. That includes senior defensive end Drew Ott, who had 7.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss last year, and three offensive linemen with a combined 66 career starts.

    Iowa's recruiting always goes heavy on linemen as well, and this past class added five more offensive linemen and a handful of potential contributors on the defensive line.

Iowa State

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    Bundrage's return gives Cyclones a deep receiving corps

    Iowa State's chances of a bounce-back season in 2014 were dealt a major blow in the opening moments of its opener last August, when star receiver Quenton Bundrage tore his ACL blocking on a run play. He was lost for the year, and the Cyclones went 2-10 after posting a 3-9 mark the season before.

    The absence forced Iowa State to turn to other young receivers for production, with Allen Lazard and D'Vario Montgomery combining for 89 receptions with 1,198 yards and five touchdowns. Lazard will be a sophomore, and Montgomery will be a junior in 2015.

    Lazard should be back at full strength for his junior year, and if he can put up numbers similar to in 2013 (48 receptions, 676 yards, nine TDs) we could be seeing a very potent receiving unit from Iowa State this fall.


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    The new coach will find some big-play receivers

    David Beaty was Texas A&M's wide receivers coach before landing his first head coaching job, and his plan is to implement an Air Raid-style offense at Kansas. This will require having a lot of talented pass-catchers who are able to haul in a load of passes, though that's an area the Jayhawks are severely lacking in.

    Deep threat Nigel King turned pro after his junior year, while tight end Jimmay Mundine and Nick Harwell were among a slew of senior receivers to graduate. Kansas' most experienced wideout coming back is senior Rodriguez Coleman, who had only three receptions in 2014.

    While this might seem like a bad omen for what's to come, fear not. Beaty will no doubt have a strong lineup of receivers ready when the season begins, and because they'll be a group of unknowns this will make game-planning for them more difficult.

Kansas State

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    The Wildcats have a Gronk

    Few teams have to replace as many major contributors from last season as Kansas State, which graduated its quarterback, its two best receivers (including Tyler Lockett, who set every school record for receiving and punt returning) and some great defensive stars. The Wildcats could be in line for a rebuilding year as they break in new starters all over the field.

    But K-State isn't going to just lie down and let opponents run over it. Not when it has something no other FBS team has: a Gronk.

    Glenn Gronkowski, the younger brother of New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski, has been the Wildcats' starting tailback the past two seasons. The 6'3", 234-pound junior hasn't touched the ball much, with just five carries and 10 receptions in his career, but he's turned four of his 10 receptions into touchdowns.

    He's not as big as Rob, but he still runs hard and could be a dangerous weapon if used more this season.


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    Josh Forrest wants a bowl game

    Kentucky's lineup this season figures to skew younger, with many of the recruits that coach Mark Stoops has brought in the past few years getting their chance to get the Wildcats into a bowl game for the first time since the 2010 season.

    It would be a great way for Josh Forrest to end his storied career with Kentucky, where he started as a receiver and became the team's leading tackler in 2014. Forrest had 110 takedowns last year along with 8.5 tackles for loss and an interception return for a touchdown.

    The 6'3", 233-pound Forrest will be a team leader this fall, and he'll be trying to go out on top with a postseason appearance.


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    A bigger, stronger Leonard Fournette

    Leonard Fournette arrived at LSU last summer with a laundry list of expectations and hype, typical of what would be expected from the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2014 class. Despite having only the preseason to get up to speed, he had a strong freshman season and finished with 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns.

    Fournette also returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the Tigers' bowl loss to Notre Dame, a game in which he had 264 all-purpose yards on just 13 touches. That performance led to much anticipation of what the 6'1", 230-pound Fournette could do with a full offseason of training and preparation.

    "This was my learning season," Fournette said after that game, per Brett Weisband of Saturday Down South.

    That's a scary concept to consider, that Fournette was only scratching the surface of his potential and playing mostly off instinct and in-season development. When the 2015 season rolls around, he'll have had months in the weight room and is apt to be bigger, faster and stronger.


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    Devonte Fields has motivation for redemption

    He was the Big 12's Freshman of the Year. Then after playing only three games in 2013 because of injury, Devonte Fields was still widely regarded as a stud, and that led to him being named the conference's Preseason Player of the Year. That prediction didn't get a chance to come true, as TCU dismissed Fields before the season in the wake of a domestic violence allegation during the summer.

    Now, after spending last year at a junior college, the 6'3", 250-pound defensive end has landed at Louisville, where he's getting a second chance on a career that began with so much promise and then kept going downhill.

    Fields was draft-eligible this offseason, but he chose to stay in college and prove himself. At Louisville, he has a chance to replace standout end Lorenzo Mauldin and team up with tackle Sheldon Rankins on a defense that ranked sixth in yards allowed in 2014.


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    William Likely's speed

    As a defensive back and kick returner, William Likely has shown that his lack of size hasn't been an issue because of how fast he moves. It's why the 5'7", 175-pounder managed to intercept six passes and break up nine other throws and average more than 20 yards on returns.

    He also scored four touchdowns, two on picks and one each on a punt and a kickoff. Likely also had a punt return score as a freshman in 2013.

    Likely gets overlooked because of his diminutive stature, but that changes once he quickly closes on a receiver to break up or intercept the pass or as he races through defenders on his way to the end zone.

Miami (Florida)

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    Brad Kaaya will have a full collegiate offseason

    In order to start as a true freshman nowadays, it usually requires a player enrolling early so he can use the spring practice to get acclimated to the college game and compete with others vying for the job. Brad Kaaya didn't arrive at Miami until last May, but three months later coach Al Golden tabbed him as his starting quarterback.

    The rest was on-the-fly learning for Kaaya, who threw for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns as he started all 13 games for the Hurricanes in 2014. He had three 300-yard games and four outings with at least three TD passes, but he only completed 58.5 percent of his throws.

    Now Kaaya gets to spend this spring and summer honing his craft, which likely will make him even more efficient.


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    Jim Harbaugh didn't come back to fail

    There's always plenty of hope when a program brings in a new coach, especially after firing the previous guy. But with Michigan and Jim Harbaugh this optimism is at a level that makes anything short of instant success be looked at as a major disappointment.

    Harbaugh no doubt understood this when he came back to college rather than pursue another NFL job following his departure from the San Francisco 49ers. He'd already proved he could win at this level, turning Stanford into a national power, yet returning to his alma mater was something bigger that he couldn't pass up.

    And he didn't come back to just do an OK job either.

    "Top to bottom, Michigan is about excellence, is about greatness, and you have my pledge that I will carry forward the tradition of excellence of the University of Michigan football program," Harbaugh said at his introductory press conference (h/t ESPN).

    Considering Harbaugh's reputation for being a dedicated and intense leader, he's got no plans to take his time getting the Wolverines back to prominence.

Michigan State

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    Shilique Calhoun stuck around

    Michigan State picked up two major wins beyond the victory it posted against Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, with quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun both choosing to come back for their senior seasons. Each will play a major role in keeping the Spartans playing at a high level in 2015, but Calhoun's return is more essential.

    Last year the 6'5", 256-pound Calhoun had eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, following up a sophomore year in which he had three defensive touchdowns. Having him back on the defensive line helps make up for the loss of key players at linebacker and in the secondary, as well as the departure of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to become Pittsburgh's head coach.

    With MSU having to rebuild its offense as well, having a strong defensive front will enable it to navigate a tough early schedule that includes a visit from national championship runner-up Oregon.


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    Mitch Leidner's mobility

    His 3.59 yards-per-carry average wasn't anything to write home about it, but Mitch Leidner proved to be far more elusive than his numbers would indicate in 2014.

    The 6'4", 237-pound quarterback made his runs count, scoring 10 touchdowns on 126 carries and posting five games with at least 50 yards. That includes rushing for 111 yards and two TDs in a huge November win over Nebraska, a victory that helped the Golden Gophers land their first New Year's Day bowl game since 1962.

    Minnesota graduated leading rusher David Cobb and saw top receiving target Maxx Williams turn pro early. Leidner will be the focal point of the Gophers offense this season, and that will be both as a passer and a rusher.

Mississippi State

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    Dak Prescott wants a championship

    His degree already secured and with a skill set that would have made him an attractive choice in the draft, Dak Prescott had plenty of reasons to end his college career and turn pro after the 2014 season. But he had one big motivation to come back to Mississippi State for one more year, and that was to finish what he started.

    Since becoming the Bulldogs' starter during the 2013 season, Prescott has elevated the program from one that was just fighting to get into a bowl game to one that spent a few weeks as the No. 1 team in the country last fall. Though MSU lost three of four after a 9-0 start, it was still a great season that saw Prescott get a lot of Heisman Trophy hype as he amassed 4,435 yards of total offense and accounted for 42 touchdowns.

    Now he gets to try to match that success or take it one step further and get the Bulldogs into their first SEC title game.


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    The Tigers have options at quarterback

    Maty Mauk has helped Missouri win two straight SEC East Division titles, though last season he struggled in many games with his accuracy and decision-making. He's the Tigers' starter heading into his junior year, but because of a highly regarded incoming prospect his job isn't safe.

    Drew Lock, a 4-star passer that Mizzou signed earlier this month, is projected by many experts as a strong candidate to see significant time as a true freshman. His new coaching staff has kept this door open, with offensive coordinator Josh Henson telling Tod Palmer of The Kansas City Star "the best player's going to play, so it's going to be a competition."

    This should motivate Mauk to play better this season. He threw for 2,648 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2014 but was intercepted 13 times and completed just 53.4 percent of his passes.

    Mizzou won't turn to Lock unless Mauk struggles, but knowing there is a strong second option makes the competition less stressful for the team.


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    Mike Riley has some surprises in store

    After 14 seasons (spanning two stints) at Oregon State, Mike Riley made the surprise move to take the Nebraska job back in December. His name hadn't surfaced as a candidate to replace the fired Bo Pelini, and when the school announced his hiring the decision was met with a mix of praise and skepticism.

    Riley's 93-80 record with the Beavers paled in comparison to the 67 wins that Pelini had in just seven years with the Cornhuskers, but Riley was also dealing with a much tougher situation at Oregon State, so his record in Corvallis had to be taken with a grain of salt.

    Because Nebraska has shown a tendency to fire coaches despite strong records, Riley must have something planned for how he's going to hang on to the job. He pulled out some great tricks over his years with OSU, and more of that should happen in Lincoln.

North Carolina

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    Ryan Switzer can still break one off

    As a freshman, Ryan Switzer took college football by storm by tying the FBS single-season record for punt return touchdowns with five. He showed a bold and brash approach to returning kicks, often passing up the opportunity to call for a fair catch and turning that decision into paydirt.

    But last season Switzer was shut out in the return game, averaging only 4.65 yards on 37 returns. He made more of an impact as a receiver in 2014, leading North Carolina with 61 receptions and 762 yards but with only four touchdowns.

    The 5'10", 180-pound Switzer might have had a down year, but he's no less dangerous and no less willing to take risks. If he's overlooked, he'll take one to the house.

North Carolina State

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    Top-tier running back depth

    North Carolina State has a three-year starter at running back in Shadrach Thornton, who has been the team's leading rusher since his freshman season, as well as a capable backup in junior Matt Dayes. Last year that duo combined for 1,480 yards and 17 touchdowns, and along with mobile quarterback Jacoby Brissett put together the country's 39th-ranked run offense at 204.5 yards per game.

    Now the Wolfpack bring in a crop of rushers that Barton Simmons of 247Sports wrote "could make a case as the best in the country." It was headlined by 4-star prospect Johnny Frasier, who previously had committed to Florida State, as well as Nyheim Hines and Reggie Gallaspy.

    With so many backs to choose from, NC State figures to rise in the rushing rankings. And with Thornton and Brissett set to graduate after 2015, getting those younger rushers some playing time now seems like a smart move.


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    The team can build around Justin Jackson

    Northwestern had no idea who was going to step up and be its go-to running back when the season began, especially after senior Venric Mark left the program during training camp. It took a few games, but eventually freshman Justin Jackson soared up the depth chart and finished with 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns.

    The 5'11", 185-yard Jackson had six 100-yard games in his final eight outings, gaining a career-best 162 yards in the Wildcats' upset win over Wisconsin and finishing with 426 yards and five TDs over the last three games of the season.

    Northwestern ran on 51.7 percent of its offensive snaps in 2014, and with Jackson at the top of the depth chart that rate figures to go up this fall.

Notre Dame

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    The defense has figured it out

    There were some rough performances by Notre Dame's defense in 2014, particularly during the late-season skid when the Fighting Irish lost four straight and gave up more than 486 yards per game. Five of Notre Dame's final six opponents ran for 200 or more yards, leading to a No. 74 national ranking against the run.

    But with almost the entire defense coming back this season and another offseason to work with coordinator Brian VanGorder and his system, what had been a liability toward the end of last year should become a major asset for Notre Dame.

    "I believe we've got an opportunity to have a special season in 2015, and I wanted to be a part of that success," defensive end Sheldon Day said when announcing his decision to return for his senior year.

    Day had 7.5 tackles for loss last season, one of four returning players with at least that many TFLs. Also back are notables such as junior linebacker Jaylon Smith and junior defensive tackle Isaac Rochell.

Ohio State

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    All three quarterbacks could (and should) play

    Ohio State has three players who could start at quarterback for any FBS program in the country, making the Buckeyes the envy of the entire nation. Urban Meyer has a tough choice to make, though how senior Braxton Miller and sophomore J.T. Barrett return from injury and how junior Cardale Jones continues to develop will ultimately dictate which one leads OSU on its national title defense.

    In reality, none of the options is bad, and none would make this team any less dangerous. But since each player brings his own diverse skill set to the field, it might make the most sense for the Buckeyes to mix and match them to the situation and opponent.

    It's hard enough for teams to plan for one quarterback, but the notion that they might need to prepare for multiple passers will make OSU far more dangerous.


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    The Air Raid will vastly improve production

    From 2008-2012 Oklahoma's passing offense was annually among the best in the country, averaging at least 330 yards in four of those five seasons. But the past two years saw a drastic drop in production, gaining 199.1 yards per game in 2013 and just 203.5 per game last season.

    But with the hiring of new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who had great attacks at East Carolina, the Sooners should see their passing game have a major boost.

    Riley will have three prime candidates to choose from. Trevor Knight started most of Oklahoma's games last year, though he was wildly inconsistent, and Cody Thomas was more of a rusher than a passer. Baker Mayfield, who started several games for Texas Tech in 2013 before sitting out last season following his transfer, played in a similar Air Raid-style offense with the Red Raiders.

Oklahoma State

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    Mike Gundy has bounced back before

    Last year's 7-6 record marked a three-game dip in wins from the season before, as injuries and inexperience caused Oklahoma State to have a down performance. It peaked at the end, though, as the Cowboys upset rival Oklahoma on the road to become bowl-eligible and then took down Washington in the Cactus Bowl.

    That late surge gave fuel to the hope that coach Mike Gundy would be able to get the program back to its previous lofty standards, much like he's done before. After OK State went 23-3 between 2010-11, it slipped to 8-5 in 2011 then rose back up a season later.

    Gundy slowly improved the Cowboys from 4-7 in his first season in 2005 to the Big 12 title in 2011 then prevented an extended backslide. With that in mind, opponents should be basing their assessment of the Cowboys on all of Gundy's tenure and not just what they did last year.

Ole Miss

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    The Landsharks haven't swam upstream

    Ole Miss led FBS in scoring last season, at 16 points per game, fueled by a ball-hawking attack that recorded 32 takeaways including 22 interceptions. The group earned a catchy nickname, the "Landsharks," and played with a swagger that was key to the Rebels winning their first seven games.

    Four major Landsharks starters graduated from that unit, but the expectations for 2015 are no less lofty. Not with the Rebels' entire defensive line coming back, headlined by junior Robert Nkemdiche, as well as the return of some promising defensive backs who were injured last season.

    While Ole Miss might not be able to match last year's numbers, the defense isn't going to be a burden. In fact, it figures to still be the strength of the team.


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    The skill talent remains at an all-time high

    Yes, Oregon has to find a successor to Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota at quarterback, but whoever that ends up being won't be asked to be a one-man attack. The Ducks' skill positions are loaded with star players, including one who missed all of 2014.

    Top receiver Bralon Addison tore his ACL during spring practice last year and did not play. This led to Oregon shifting Byron Marshall from running back to receiver, opening the door for Royce Freeman to rush for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns.

    Oregon also has Thomas Tyner, who has rushed for 1,264 yards and 14 touchdowns the past two seasons, and receivers Devon Allen and Dwayne Stanford are coming off breakout years.

    "Even if Oregon's next quarterback doesn't win a Heisman, he won't have to with the supporting cast that he will have around him," wrote Tyler Brett of Rant Sports.

Oregon State

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    The pieces are in place for a Big Ten-style run game

    In his past four seasons as a head coach at two different programs, Gary Andersen has managed to produce a 1,500-yard rusher every year. At Utah State it was Robert Turbin in 2011 and Kerwynn Williams in 2012, and at Wisconsin it was Melvin Gordon in both seasons.

    Oregon State hasn't had a player rush for more than 1,000 since Jacquizz Rodgers in 2010, but the tools are there for the Beavers to become a top-level running team under Andersen.

    To start, they bring back a veteran rusher in senior Storm Woods, who has gained 2,183 yards in three seasons. Secondly, Oregon State returns all five starters from last year, and it could get back former standout Isaac Seumalo after he missed all of 2014 following foot surgery.

    OSU also faces a potential sea change with the graduation of Pac-12 career passing leader Sean Mannion. All of these factors could lead the Beavers to posting their best rushing output in years.

Penn State

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    It's Christian Hackenberg's free-agent year

    Since being named Penn State's starting quarterback as a true freshman at the beginning of the 2013 season, questions about how Christian Hackenberg would fare in the pros have been prevalent. This, despite the fact he wouldn't be eligible for the NFL draft until after the 2015 season.

    That makes this upcoming fall the one where all of those pro comparisons and comparables really start to matter. Knowing this, expect the 6'4", 234-yard Hackenberg to perform like a player who is in effect going through a season-long job interview.

    Hackenberg threw for 2,977 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, throwing 15 interceptions and completing just 55.8 percent of his passes. Plagued by a porous offensive line that led him to get sacked 44 times and which blocked for the nation's 120th-ranked rushing attack, Hackenberg struggled for much of the year outside of his first and last games.

    In those outings he threw for a school-record 454 yards against UCF and then tossed four TD passes with 371 yards in the Pinstripe Bowl victory over Boston College.


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    Tyler Boyd and James Conner are a deadly duo

    Pat Narduzzi's first foray into head coaching isn't one of those scenarios where he's inheriting an empty cupboard devoid of talent. Pittsburgh's struggles over the past several seasons have all been related to coaching stability or lack thereof, as Narduzzi is the school's eighth coach (including interim ones) since 2010.

    Narduzzi has a pretty solid group of players to work with, including a one-two combination of skill players who could rival any other in the ACC. Running back James Conner and receiver Tyler Boyd, both juniors, combined for 3,763 all-purpose yards in 2014.

    Conner broke Tony Dorsett's school single-season rushing record, running for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns, while Boyd had 78 receptions for 1,261 yards and eight TDs along with strong averages as a punt and kick returner.


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    An experienced offensive line returns intact

    Purdue's most consistent offensive player last season was Akeem Hunt, a running back who ran for 949 yards and six touchdowns as a senior. Both he and No. 2 rusher Raheem Mostert have graduated, though, and the search for a new leading rusher is a key offseason issue that the Boilermakers have to address.

    The coaching staff can take solace in knowing they have a veteran offensive line returning to open holes for whoever earns the starting running back job.

    Tackles David Hedelin and J.J. Prince were first-time starters last season. But Jason King and Jordan Roos are entering their third year as starter, and center Robert Kugler has started games since 2012.

    Purdue averaged 157.2 rushing yards per game, and the line only gave up 24 sacks last year.


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    Too many running backs to scout

    From injuries come opportunities, and few teams epitomize this development like Rutgers did in 2014 when it came to its run game. The Scarlet Knights lost star running back Paul James to a torn ACL after four games, but the run production never wavered as a four other players stepped in and got their chance to shine.

    Josh Hicks and Robert Martin both got auditions as freshmen, with Hicks running for 202 yards and a touchdown in Rutgers' bowl win over North Carolina and Martin averaging 14.4 carries over the Knights' final five games. Desmon Peoples ended up leading the team in rushing, with 447 yards, and a team-high 110 carries, and Justin Godwin chipped in another 328.

    Those five backs enabled Rutgers to average 162.6 yards per game.

    James is expected back for the fall, giving Rutgers the option of going with an endless number of scenarios to split carries and make their run game hard to prep for.

South Carolina

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    Pharoh Cooper can do everything

    Pharoh Cooper was South Carolina's leading receiver last season, with 69 receptions for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns, but that only begins to describe his value to the Gamecocks in 2014.

    The 5'11", 201-pound sophomore also ranked fourth on the team in rushing, with 200 yards, scoring twice, and threw for 78 yards and two TDs on 5-of-8 passing. And just to top it all, Cooper served as a punt returner in most games and averaged five yards on 15 returns.

    If there's something South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier needs Cooper to do, he's done it, sometimes all in one game. And with the Gamecocks replacing their quarterback and leading rusher, Cooper might find himself being more than a receiver quite often in 2015.


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    Kevin Hogan's experience and accuracy

    A year after it seemed like every team in the Pac-12 had a veteran quarterback at its disposal, in 2015 there are several schools starting someone new at the position on a full-time basis. And of the programs with experienced passers, few have the time under center that Stanford's Kevin Hogan has.

    A starter since November 2012, Hogan has handled nearly every meaningful snap over the past 33 games. He has 6,123 yards and 48 touchdowns for his career, throwing for 2,792 yards and 19 TDs last season while adding five rushing scores.

    A potential early NFL entrant this offseason, Hogan chose to return for his final season to get the Cardinal back into the playoff hunt after slipping to 8-5 in 2014.


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    Terrel Hunt should be healthy (and constantly moving)

    After waiting more than two years to get into a game at quarterback, once Terrel Hunt became Syracuse's starter in early 2013 the Orange became a different team on offense. And when he went down with a broken leg last October, their once-promising season went down the tubes.

    Syracuse dropped to 2-3 after losing to Louisville in that game when Hunt was injured and finished 3-9. Without him out there using his mobility and strong arm, the Orange averaged 13.9 points per game and had such little production he still finished as the team's leader in total offense despite missing seven games.

    Hunt, who has graduated, opened spring practice Sunday working with the first team, according to Nate Mink of Syracuse.com.

    Hunt has thrown 11 touchdown passes and rushed for 13 scores in his career.


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    USA TODAY Sports

    Gary Patterson still feels snubbed

    It's been seven weeks since TCU ended the 2014 season with a dominant win over Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, a victory that furthered the Horned Frogs' case that they were deserving of a playoff spot. Coach Gary Patterson hasn't forgotten that spurning, even pitching a major change to the system that would take care of the issue of five conferences feeding into four semifinal spots.

    "This way gives everybody a chance to have their champion or their best team be a part of the playoff, and a sixth team that could be from any conference," Patterson told ESPN.com's Chris Low in describing his six-team tournament.

    TCU brings back so much from last year's 12-1 team that needing to expand the playoffs shouldn't be a concern for Patterson, but it's evident he's using the snub as motivation for his team. That could backfire if it becomes too much of the focus, but most likely it will just make the Frogs that much more dangerous for opponents to deal with.


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    USA TODAY Sports

    Freshmen become sophomores

    Tennessee reached a bowl game for the first time since 2010 and finished with its first winning record since 2009, and the Volunteers owe so much of that success to their freshmen. More than 20 true and redshirt freshmen made major contributions last season, making the Vols one of the youngest teams in FBS but also one that has the among the fewest holes to replace for 2015.

    Since all of those key freshmen have returned—and now with experience—what still on paper looks like a young team will actually be far more battle-tested than some opponents.

    Of those youngsters, 11 of them started at least one game last year. One of the biggest impact freshmen was defensive end Derek Barnett. He led the conference and tied for seventh nationally with 20.5 tackles for loss and, according to Bleacher Report's Brad Shepard, "had a special season that was one of the best of any freshman defensive lineman in the history of the SEC."

    Tight end Ethan Wolf, running back Jalen Hurd, linebacker Jakob Johnson and kicker Aaron Medley were also big players in last year's success, and all come back with that performance to build off of.


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    USA TODAY Sports

    Charlie Strong's culture is setting in

    Since the day he arrived in Austin, Texas coach Charlie Strong has preached his core values that all players had to adhere to in order to be part of the program. None of them—honesty, treating women with respect and no drugs, stealing or guns—were unrealistic, yet between January and the start of the 2014 season several players were booted off the team.

    Other suspensions and dismissals occurred during the season, and when all was said and done the Longhorns' thinned-out roster produced a 6-7 record and a blowout loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl.

    Yet since the season ended, there haven't been any other disciplinary actions that have been made public. It appears that Strong's will has been imposed on Texas, as former Longhorn defensive back Quandre Diggs noted at the NFL combine last weekend.

    "You're either gonna buy in or you'll suffer and get kicked out of there," Diggs told Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports.

    Once Strong put this culture in place at his previous job, Louisville, his team went from 7-6 the first two seasons to winning 23 games over the next two.

Texas A&M

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    The Aggies' young (but scary) defensive line

    As a whole, Texas A&M's defense had as much to do with the team's plummet from 5-0 as anything else. The Aggies ranked 104th in yards allowed and gave up 28.1 points per game, including 142 during a three-game losing streak.

    Yet the defense is also where there's the most hope for future success with this team, mostly because of the spirited play last year of true freshman defensive end Myles Garrett as well as the impending arrival of 5-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack. Mack was a signing day acquisition that, combined with other prospects, lifted the Aggies' recruiting class to 11th in the 247Sports rankings.

    The combination of Mack and Garrett, if they can play well together, should lift A&M far up the defensive rankings. Beyond that, they will strike fear in opposing blockers, ball-carriers and quarterbacks.

    "Daylon Mack is Myles Garrett's new best friend," Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee tweeted after Mack picked A&M on signing day.

Texas Tech

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    Patrick Mahomes' pitching arm

    Thrust into action because of injuries last season, Patrick Mahomes made his collegiate debut in hostile territory late in a Thursday night loss at Oklahoma State. He ended up starting Texas Tech's final few games, finishing the 2014 season with 1,547 yards and 16 touchdowns but only a 54.7 completion rate.

    The accuracy was far below what was expected for a quarterback who also doubles as a pitcher and outfielder for the Red Raiders' baseball team. But after having an offseason where he gets to work on both, expect a far stronger outing this fall.

    Tech is so invested in Mahomes that it has arranged its spring football schedule (between Feb. 27 and April 11) around his baseball commitments, per Don Williams of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.


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    Myles Jack can play anywhere

    In a perfect world, UCLA wouldn't need to use Myles Jack anywhere other than at the linebacker position it initially recruited him for. But circumstances have led the Bruins to utilize him on offense the past two seasons, less so in 2014 thanks to the emergence of Paul Perkins at running back.

    Last year the 6'1", 232-pound Jack had 28 carries for 113 yards and three touchdowns compared to 267 yards and seven scores as a true freshman. He spent most of 2014 on defense, recording 87 tackles with eight tackles for loss, seven pass breakups and an interception in the Alamo Bowl win over Kansas State.

    Though the hope is not to use Jack much in the backfield this fall, it's not out of the question. His strength and hard running ability are great for goal-line situations, something UCLA often did with him running behind a defensive lineman in there to block.

    Jack has to be feared for his potential impact on both sides of the ball.


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    USA TODAY Sports

    Better secondary depth means more offensive snaps for Adoree' Jackson

    A starter at times both as a receiver and a cornerback, including on both sides in the same game once last season, Adoree' Jackson found a way to contribute in so many ways for USC as a true freshman. In addition to his 49 tackles and three receiving touchdowns, Jackson returned two kickoffs for TDs and averaged 29.7 yards per return.

    Jackson's time on offense was limited last year because he was needed so much in the secondary. But now that the Trojans have emerged from NCAA sanctions that included scholarship reductions, USC was able to load up on defensive backs this offseason. Though Jackson figures to still be a starter at corner, he'll likely see his offensive reps increase.

    "The tug o' war will continue between the Trojans' offensive and defensive coaches, because he has the ability to change a game whichever side of the ball he is on," ESPN's Travis Haney wrote.

    Fatigue didn't seem to be an issue for the 5'11", 185-pound Jackson last season, as he appeared to get stronger with more involvement.


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    Nate Orchard wasn't the only sack threat

    Utah's breakout season in 2014 was fueled by a defense that had a knack for getting to the passer. As a team, the Utes registered an FBS-leading 55 sacks, including 10 of UCLA's Brett Hundley in an upset victory in October.

    The most prolific sacker was Nate Orchard, who was second in the nation with 18.5. He's graduated, but despite his departure it's not like the Utes will suddenly be devoid of pass-rushers, as 34.5 of last season's sacks were recorded by players set to return this fall. That includes defensive linemen Hunter Dimick, who had 10 as a sophomore, and Jason Fanaika, who had five as a junior.

    Utah brings back eight key contributors from last year's defense, so don't expect much drop-off in how the Utes pressure the pocket.


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    The young linebackers are hungry

    There weren't many teams on last year's schedule who showed much fear when facing Vanderbilt, as evidenced by the Commodores' 3-9 record and winless mark in SEC play. Derek Mason's first team appeared overmatched and undermanned nearly every weekend, with little progress shown throughout the season.

    The lone place where Vandy seemed most adept, though, was at linebacker, where a trio of rising contributors return looking to atone for the 2014 debacle.

    Junior Stephen Weatherly and sophomores Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham combined for 200 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and seven sacks. They are the ones Mason will build around this season and whom opponents need to be most wary of when prepping for Vandy's defense.


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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Cavaliers are playing for Mike London's job

    After plummeting to 2-10 in 2013, Virginia needed a bounce-back season that showed enough progress for coach Mike London to remain in place. The Cavaliers improved to 5-7 but fell to rival Virginia Tech in their finale to miss out on a bowl game.

    London had been assured of his return for this fall just before that Virginia Tech matchup, with athletic director Craig Littlepage saying in a statement (h/t CBS Sports), "I trust the plan Mike has in place and believe his leadership provides the best opportunity for Virginia football to be successful in the future."

    That's loosely translated into meaning that London better get the Cavs into a bowl this season, or he'll be out of a job after 2015.

    With that in mind, Virginia's players will be fighting not only for individual and team success but to save their leader. That hunger can go a long way toward producing results, though with a nonconference schedule that includes UCLA, Boise State and Notre Dame it's going to be an uphill battle to get to six wins.

Virginia Tech

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    Quarterback play should be much-improved

    Michael Brewer didn't perform horribly at quarterback last season for Virginia Tech, but he also could have done much better. Sadly, this has been the way Hokies passers have been described for the past few seasons.

    Expect that to change in 2015, if only because Tech has more options at the position than it has in some time and at least one of them figures to pan out positively.

    Brewer, a Texas Tech transfer, threw for 2,692 yards and 18 touchdowns but was intercepted 15 times and completed only 59.4 percent of his passes. The senior is the front-runner for the job this year, but if he struggles during camp the Hokies could turn to junior Brenden Motley, redshirt freshmen Chris Durkin and Andrew Ford or incoming freshman Dwayne Lawson.

    Whoever Tech ends up going with, expect better overall production than has been seen from the position in nearly a decade.

Wake Forest

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    The Demon Deacons' junior defenders

    Individually, none of Wake Forest's returning defensive standouts is likely to get singled out as among the best in the country for 2015. But put them together, and this group of Demon Deacons should be a formidable force, particularly those entering their junior season.

    Safeties Thomas Brown and Ryan Janvion, linebacker Marquel Lee and defensive tackles Josh Banks and Shelldon Lewinson combined for 327 tackles, 35.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks last season, helping Wake put together a solid defense that kept it in games when the offense couldn't produce.

    Watch for this group of now-upperclassmen to serve as a collective captain for the Deacons this fall, pacing the push toward a possible .500 record.


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    Jake Browning's records

    It's hard not to ignore the numbers that Jake Browning put up during his high school career, unless you're not into enormous state and national records.

    In three seasons at Folsom High School in California, Browning set the national mark for touchdown passes in a career (229) and tied the U.S. record with 91 TDs as a senior in 2014. He threw for 16,775 yards for his career, a California record, and is the only prep player to ever have three consecutive seasons of 5,000 passing yards and 60 or more touchdowns.

    What does all this mean for his college prospects? Not much, in reality, since he still has to beat out incumbent junior Cyler Miles and others for Washington's starting quarterback job. But as an early enrollee, he's already got the ball rolling on pushing for the gig. And if he gets into action this season odds are he won't be afraid to sling it around.

Washington State

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    Luke Falk is a Leach-recruited quarterback

    Washington State coach Mike Leach had to go with who was available when he took over the Cougars' program three years ago, and that meant going with a combination of Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday at quarterback in 2012. Halliday took over the gig full time in 2013, throwing for nearly 4,600 yards that season, and was on pace for a record-setting year last fall before breaking his leg in November.

    That started the Luke Falk era, marking the first time a Mike Leach-picked passer would be throwing it for Washington State. And the results were pretty impressive.

    Despite only two career pass attempts prior to getting thrown into a Nov. 1 game against USC, Falk threw for 1,773 yards and 12 touchdowns in less than four games of action as a redshirt freshman. He completed 65.4 percent of his passes and topped 600 yards in his second career start.

    Now the 6'4", 208-pound Falk gets a full offseason to work as the first-team quarterback, and odds are he'll be at or near the top of the national passing charts this season.

West Virginia

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    Nick Kwiatkoski is ready to stand out

    West Virginia's defense hasn't gotten much notoriety the past two seasons, mostly because its offense stands out far more. But the Mountaineers have produced some solid, underrated defenders, several of whom return this fall to create a unit that should improve on last year's No. 68 national ranking.

    Look for senior linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski to lead that charge, just as he has the previous two years as the Mountaineers' leading tackler.

    The 6'2", 236-pound senior has 189 tackles in the past two seasons, along with 18 tackles for loss and three interceptions. He had five games with at least 10 tackles in 2014, including when he registered 10 solo takedowns in a comeback win at Maryland.


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    Corey Clement isn't coming in cold

    New Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst arrived in Madison in December without the stress and uncertainty that come with taking a new job for two reasons. First, Chryst was a former assistant with the program, having been the Badgers' offensive coordinator in 2012 before leaving to take the Pittsburgh head coaching job.

    Second, he was able to take comfort in knowing that despite the fact Wisconsin was about to lose a 2,500-yard rusher in Melvin Gordon, he wasn't going to have to start from scratch at running back. That's because Corey Clement had been getting groomed for the role of go-to rusher for two years.

    The 5'11", 203-pound Clement ran for 949 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014 as a backup, and had 547 yards and seven scores as a freshman. Those numbers are better than many starters in their first two years of college, but thanks to Wisconsin's fondness for rushing and its desire to keep running backs from getting overworked, Clement has seen plenty of meaningful touches already.

    That should translate into a big year this fall for Clement, and means opponents won't be able to treat him like a first-time starter unsure of his role.

    Stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.


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