Perhaps the most difficult team on U of L’s schedule comes in the season opener against Auburn. The Tigers are coming off an 8-5 season in-which they lost to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl. Many have selected the 2015 team to finish first or second in the SEC West due to new quarterback Jeremy Johnson. The 6’5, 230lbs junior has a canon for an arm and is a dark horse candidate for Heisman in Gus Malzahan’s offense. The wide receiver Duke Johnson, 6’2, 225lbs, is also another reason for the 2015 offense. A big armed, athletic QB, play making WR, an SEC offensive line, and a Malzahn engineered run game gives a good amount of hope.
Despite having all the hype around this year’s team it still has its questions that need answers. Offensively: Johnson is still a first year QB, former running back Cameron Artis-Payne has to be replaced after leading the SEC in rushing yards, the line is facing some turnover, and someone outside of Williams will need to step up receiving wise. Defensively: Will Muschamp is in his first year as the defensive coordinator after spending the last four years as the head coach at Florida, how he meshes with Malzahn is crucial. Beyond that the defense as a whole is a question mark, last year they allowed 26 points a game. In the last seven games, games against FBS teams, they let up 31 or more points each game.
All items will need to come together for Auburn to be the SEC’s top dog, obviously, but the pieces are in place for the Tigers. At the end of the day Auburn should be able to just out talent some teams but when it comes to top competition they can no longer rely solely on that. On the defensive side of the ball if there is someone to step up and turn them around it is senior Cassanova McKinzy. Over the last two years the linebacker has rounded up 166 tackles, he will be joined by former five star recruits Carl Lawson and Bryon Cowart to cut those points per game in half.
The Houston Cougars will be under coach Tom Herman for the first time this season. After winning the national championship as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State Herman looks to work his magic on this AAC team. The Cougs defeated Pitt in the Armed Forces Bowl 35-34 in one of the most exciting bowl games of the season. Don’t be surprised if this team sneaks into the top 25 and atop of the AAC by the end of the year. They will bolster a very athletic and talented offense but the key is on the defensive side of the ball.
Between wide out turned quarterback Greg Ward Jr, running backs Kenneth Farrow (15 touchdowns) and Ryan Jackson, and wide receivers Demarcus Ayers and Steven Dunbar coach Herman has the tools to get a productive year. The defense could be what pushes this team over the top as they have plenty of left over talent from last year. The switch from 4-3 to 3-4 could pose a speed bump but could pay defense as they let their athletes make plays in open field. The two safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart are all conference players and maybe the best duo in the nation. Last year they accounted for 130 tackles and 11 turnovers. Over their careers the pair of seniors have made 500 tackles and forced 39 turnovers. William Jackson is also an all conference player at corner and the back four will carry this team. The front seven must be able to stop the run for Houston to have a successful year.
Houston has the potential to be a dark horse team this year. With Herman’s creativity on the offense side of the ball and the left over talent on the defense they could roll through the AAC and catch a few non-conference teams off guard. The biggest question will be QB play; Ward will have to prove to be an actual quarterback and not just an athlete. If Ward can use his arm to help spread the ball around watch out for the Cougars this year.
Clemson has been a quiet successful program over the past 40 years. Since 1976 the Tigers have only had three losing seasons. Since 2005 they’ve had seven seasons of eight or more wins. The 2015 year could be the start of something special as quarterback Deshawn Watson is entering his sophomore year. After an injury plagued freshman year Watson has a chance to be the ACC’s top QB alongside Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas. Clemson has a talented roster as well, after losing some players to the NFL Dabo Swinney’s team will need new starters to make impacts.
Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford tormented offenses in 2014 and their production will need to be replaced. Enter Shaq Lawson, 6’3, 275lbs, and Kevin Dodd, 6’5, 275lbs. The junior duo came in together as four stars and will look to impact games just as Beasley and Crawford did last year. The back seven seems to be the biggest issue for this upcoming year as they don’t have anyone who has yet to establish themselves as solid starters. Offensively the biggest loss comes on the coaching staff as offensive coordinator Chad Morris finally took a head coaching job at SMU. Running back Wayne Gallman rushed for 95 yards a game over the last six games of last season. Pair that with wide receivers Mike Williams, 6’4, 210lbs, and the explosive Artavis Scott and the Tigers’ offense is ready to go again.
The offensive line is the biggest x-factor for Clemson this season. If they can keep Watson upright along with making holes for RBs Gallman and Zac Brooks they could be rolling through their schedule. They group will have four seniors in the starting lineup. The Tigers seem to be on a collision course with Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship but can’t overlook teams in their tough schedule.
The Samford Bulldogs are never shy about playing top competition. This FCS team from Homewood, Alabama has played six power five schools from 2010-2014. This year they have Louisville on the schedule, Mississippi State next year, and Georgia is on the slate for 2017. Former 1971 Heisman trophy winner Pat Sullivan is no longer in charge and Chris Hatcher steps into the scene. Hatcher has an impressive track record with head coaching stops at Valdosta State, Georgia Southern, and most recently at Murray State. He won a national championship with Valdosta State in 2004.
With 14 starters returning Samford has a chance to win the Southern Conference but the defense will be the game changer. Quarterback Michael Eubank is coming into his second year starting after throwing for 2100 yards and 12 touchdowns. His top target Karel Hamilton is back after his 55 receptions last year that totaled 877 yards and half of Eubank’s touchdowns. Perhaps the top offensive performer last year was running back Denzel Williams. In his sophomore year he ran for 918 yards and 16 touchdowns, that outing earned him all conference honors along with Hamilton. All American safety Jaquiski Tartt will need to be replaced or it could be a long year. James Bradberry, Justin Cooper, and Michael Pierce will look to rally the defense together. With so many returning starters and talent in place Hatcher has a high chance to be successful in year one.
North Carolina State, 10/3
NC State picked up steam last year after almost defeating Florida State at home. After that game they beat Syracuse 24-17, blew out rival North Carolina, and won the St. Petersburg Bowl Over UCF 34-27. That would of sounded impossible after losing to Clemson 41-0 and Boston College 30-14 but the Pack pushed on. Former Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett is out to show he’s one of the ACC’s top quaterbacks. After a bit of a disappointing year in 2014 Brissett must pull threw in 2015 to keep State afloat and possibly save Dave Doeren’s job. Running backs Shadrach Thorton and Matt Dayes should help take the pressure off the senior QB. The two accounted for over 2100 total yards and 24 touchdowns last year.
The 2015 season does have red flags all over it for the Wolvepack. After losing two offensive tackles and three of the four defensive defensive lineman the trenches will be looking for immediate impact. Defensively NC State will be fairly young with multiple sophomore starters. As a whole the team will only have six senior starters and nine freshman or sophomore starters. The biggest problem for State is scheduling, both this year and last. They start off the year with Troy, Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion, and Southern Alabama which has no power five school teams and no team that made it to a bowl. The second half contains Louisville, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Clemson, Boston College, Florida State, Syracuse, then rival UNC. It’s quite a jump with little buffer in between.
The Wolvepack will have to win all non-conference games if they want to go bowling again. With a younger team and mid-level talent wise Doeren will have to pull the team together late again to make a push. Brissett is one of the league’s best quarterbacks along with a a pair of talented running backs the offense should maintain as long as the line holds up. Defensively they are young and inexperienced which could hurt them when it comes to the conference schedule.
Florida State, 10/17
Florida State is coming off a 27-1 record over the past two years, since 2010 they are 58-11. Alabama, Boise State, Ohio State, Oregon, and Stanford are the only other schools with at least 54 wins since then. The 2015 year will be a challenge for the Seminoles despite being three time defending ACC champs. The two questions you don’t want your team to have is at quarterback and offensive line, FSU has both. Jameis Winston and for starting lineman are just some of the departures. Talent hasn’t been a problem in Tallahassee since the 70’s so Jimbo Fisher has the ability to reload. The top player on the tan this year will be defensive back Jalen Ramsey who is a top NFL prospect.
After winning a national championship, whether it’s deserved or not, media will hype up teams for the next three years. The Noles are in that time frame now and this year is a big one for the school. Last season Florida State won six of their thirteen games by six points or less before being embarrassed by Oregon. When a team has as much talent as FSU does one wouldn’t expect them to be in so many close games. The three most important players on this year’s team will be Ramsey, linebacker Terrence Smith, and quarterback Sean Maguire. Ramsey is a flat out player maker and is literally all over the field as he lines up at corner, safety, and linebacker. Smith and fellow linebacker Reggie Northup combined for 215 tackles last season. Maguire has the early nod at taking the QB spot but John Franklin III, JJ Cosentino, and Deondre Francois are all close behind.
At the end of the day Florida State is the defending ACC champion which makes them the team to beat. With losses all across the board a new tide could be coming. Fisher has proven to get the most out of his quarterbacks while they’ve been a Seminole and if he can get Maguire to settle in Florida State could be a tough team late.
Boston College, 10/24
Steve Addazio is entering his third year at Boston College and he’s 14-12 so far. While that might not look too impressive at face value when you see what he is working with it suddenly is. BC has been picked to finish last in the ACC both seasons under Addazio but has made it to a bowl each year. This season will be just like the last two with a pro, power running team. The offensive line left to right is 6’7 290lbs, 6’3 280lbs, 6’3 300lbs, 6’3 300lbs, and 6’7 290lbs. Jon Hillman is back and after rushing for 860 yards and 13 touchdowns he’s set to carry the load again.
The Eagles have a favorable schedule that can achieve at least six wins once again. To hit that mark quarterback Darius White has to carry his weight. Boston College may be known for its academics but they certainly pass the eye test when it comes to football. Addazio has set the style of play he wants and now all he can can do is improve every week. The Eagles are a big, smart, and strong football team who doesn’t make mistakes. While there isn’t much flash, they showed last year against Florida State they can compete with anyone with that style. The team is based on two things: being able to run the football and being able to stop the run. They ranked as the nation’s number two rush defense last year and linebacker Steven Daniels along with nose tackle Connor Wujciak are back. The secondary will be the biggest question mark as only one starter returns from last year, senior safety Justin Simmons. The the biggest weakness on a team that isn’t very explosive offensively is letting up big plays on the defensive end.
Wake Forest, 10/30
The 2014 season for Wake Forest can be summed up in one word: bad. Dave Clawson’s first year only seen three wins and the team never scored more than 24 points. The offense last year was extremely young with four new starters on the offensive line and a true freshman quarterback. The 2015 O isn’t much different with only one senior and two juniors starting. The best thing about the Demon Deacons comes on the defensive side of the ball. Marquel Lee, Brandon Chubb, and Ryan Janvion accounted for more than 300 tackles last year with at least 100 each.
WF has adopted the new age of football by running the spread offensively and the 4-2-5 defensively. The system they run works but players must buy into what and how the coaches are teaching it. The team’s biggest problem is their youth as a whole and only time can fix that issue. Quarterback John Wolford has a year under his belt after being sacked 48 times in 12 games last year. Tight end Cam Serigne is back and the sophomore duo should continue to connect this year. Junior wide receiver Jared Crump and sophomore running back Isaiah Robinson will look to make plays but the offensive line must be mediocre at best to have any success. Defensively the Deacons have a little more veterans and they must carry the team. If a team doesn’t score the ball that’s fine as long as they don’t let up any points. Lee, Chubb, and Janvion will continue to tackle anything that moves and lead the team.
For a short stretch Syracuse seemed like an underrated team who could sneak up on a team if they were overlooked. That period may be over as they’re now looking for answers all over the field. Last year the team only averaged 17 points a game and scored 21 points just three times, their only wins of the year. Quarterback Terrell Hunt is back after suffering a broken leg last year and he will have to play hero ball for the team to have any chance of winning.
Coach Scott Shafer might be on the hot seat after this year if he can’t find ways to win or show signs of promise. The Orange will be relying on inexperienced players to provide immediate impact. This isn’t exactly the best news for the Syracuse faithful as they have opponents such as LSU, Florida State, Louisville, and Clemson on the schedule. Perhaps the best group of players comes on the defensive side of the ball with the linebackers. Parris Bennett, Zaire Franklin and Marqez Hodge tallied over 150 tackles last season and will be looked to continue making plays.
Maybe the lone bright spot on the team will be punter Riley Dixon. He seen his fair share of action last year and this season he may be leaned on to flip field position to help the defense. There isn’t much to look forward to this year but The Orange could play the underdog role to their advantage.
Mike London is on the hot seat in Charlottesville, VA. In his five years he has accumulated a record of 23-38, his hot recruiting stretch a few years back is what saved him then. To keep his job security he must produce wins. The Cavaliers have established their pro style offense and defense but now need results. After losing one of the their all time leading rushers in Kevin Parks to graduation former 5 star RB Taquan Mizzell must contribute full time. With a very tough schedule ahead of them UVA has a very small margin for error this season.
London has been able to bring talent into Virginia at different positions but he hasn’t been able to land the big name quarterback. While you don’t need a great QB to be a bowl team, you need at least a game manager and consistency at the position. Juniors Matt Johns and Greyson Lambert both fit the mold of a pro style quarterback. At 6’5 and over 215lbs the execution is about the only thing the two are missing which is the most important trait. If one can break away and establish himself as a solid player and a leader the Cavs might hit the 6 win mark. Sophomore safety Quin Blanding is the team’s best player and after 123 tackles in his freshman season he could have his sights on the NFL soon. Expect the Freshman All-American to be flying all around the field once again this year.
Replacing what they lost last year by committee seems to be the only way London and his crew can make it to a bowl. Replenishing the lost talent will be a huge factor as the Cavs have such a difficult schedule. London has never shied away from top competition and that’s one of the reasons they don’t have more wins over the past five years. If they can pull out the close games this year the team could shock a few people but improved quarterback play is almost the only answer.
New head coach Pat Narduzzi has some of the biggest player makers in the ACC in running back James Connor and wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator at Michigan State from 2007-2014 and entering his first head coaching job. Michigan State has had one of the stringiest defenses over the past five years and Narduzzi will look to enforce that at Pitt. His offensive coordinator Jim Chancey was at Arkansas last season and should be a perfect fit for what Narduzzi wants to establish. The difference maker for the Panthers this year will be quarterback Chad Voytik. Over the last six games Voytik threw for over 200 yards and completed 65% of his passes. This offense scored 28 or more points nine times last year.
Connor and Boyd are probably the best RB/WR combo in the nation. Together the pair accounted for over 3100 yards and 32 touchdowns last season, as a career the have attributed 6000 yards and 50 touchdowns. This year should be no difference as they’re both pegged to be first team ACC. The defense will be looking for someone to step up into the leading role as 2014’s leading tacklers are both gone, junior middle linebacker Matt Galambos will be the first looked upon. Narduzzzi’s defense will be physical and attacking so returning senior defensive tackles Darryl Render and K.K. Mosley-Smith will be busy clogging up run holes this year once again.
The biggest problem for Pitt outside out QB play will be the coaching change, again. Narduzzi will be the fifth coach in seven years to lead the Panthers out on the field. Mix that with the program sitting around .500 the past few years while being located in such a professional dominate town like Pittsburgh and there’s just a lack of excitement. The problem here comes in the player to coach relationship, with so much turnaround there can be disconnection and mistrust from the players. With such a large underclass group, 81, Narduzzi might be able to rally the group together for promising years to come.
The 2015 year is a huge one for Mark Stoops and his Kentucky Wildcats. Stoops is entering his third year as the head coach and the pressure to get to a bowl is building. After starting last season 5-1 the Cats would then drop the next six as their schedule set in. Recruiting has been the staff’s number one task and Stoops’ crew has done a good job at that. Bringing players in when you can offer playing time in the top conference is an easy sell. Maintaining that success though depends on whether your winning percentage improves which is what makes this year so important. Junior quarterback Patrick Towles will be looking to bring Kentucky out of the SEC seller as they haven’t had a winning conference record in 38 years.
Along with Towles returning junior wide receiver Ryan Timmons and sophomore back Boom Williams are back as well. The trio will aim to be one of the best QB-RB-WR combos in the SEC East. The most important returnees for UK will be on the offensive line as they bring back four of the five starters. Defensively Kentucky will have a good amount to replace including OLB Bud Dupree and DE Za’Darius Smith. The front seven will be looking for impact players as they only return two starters from last season. The back four must be able to hold their ground if this defense will improve from last year. In the secondary three of the four starters are back a blend ready to roll.
Kentucky has a nice blend of skill players offensively and defensively but the battle in the trenches must go UK’s way this year for them to win. If the offensive and defensive line has to improve to give this team a shot to get to six wins. Also how the offense looks this year will be a big factor. The past two Stoops, a defensive coach, was looking for an air raid type of offense tagged with a power defense. A spread offense and a strong defense usually don’t mix simply by the nature of the spread system. How Stoops manages his coaching style could also help this team reach a bowl game.