2015 Top Ten First Look
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We got three of the four playoff teams right in last year’s pre-preseason rankings – fine, so we missed sort of a key one. Which teams look the part for the moment going into the offseason? This will change depending on where a few key quarterbacks end up – maybe – and the top ten will certainly have several tweaks when we do this up for real going into spring ball, but here are the potential stars.
1. Ohio State
Who’s going to be the quarterback? Will J.T. Barrett be healthy in time to make a difference, and will Braxton Miller be a Seminole or a Duck? Is Cardale Jones too good not to develop? With Ezekiel Elliott and a loaded backfield returning, the ground game should take control early on behind a line that gets back four starters. The receiving corps is going to be fantastic with Jalin Marshall and Michael Thomas leading the way, but the loss of TE Jeff Heuerman will hurt.
Joey Bosa will lead another strong year from the defensive front, even if it does lose DT Michael Bennett and DE Steve Miller. The linebacking corps has to replace Curtis Grant in the middle, but Darron Lee and Joshua Perry are playmakers on the outside. Even without CB Doran Grant, the secondary will be outstanding with safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell with a world of upside. PK Sean Nuernberger needs to be a bit more consistent, while Cameron Johnston should be one of the nation’s best punters.
The fun should continue on offense with QB Trevone Boykin back along with the top three receivers back and only likely to lose David Porter. The backfield gets everyone of note back including Aaron Green and B.J. Catalon as a potentially devastating 1-2 punch of the O goes to the ground game a bit more. The line loses LT Tayo Fabuluje but gets everyone else back – it should be a line that starts five seniors.
The defense is potentially just as dangerous, losing DT Chucky Hunter but getting back everyone else in the front four. Finding linebackers is never a problem for the TCU, but it’s still not fun losing Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet. CB Kevin White and SS Sam Carter are gone, but the secondary gets back three starters and should be excellent if the linebackers can do their part in the 4-2-5. PK Jaden Oberkrom is back after a big year, but P Ethan Perry has to be better after failing to average 40 yards per kick.
The depth is coming back to go along with the outstanding speed and talent across the board. QB Cody Kessler has the potential to be among the best in America, but he’s losing Nelson Agholor early to the NFL. He’ll get everyone else of note back including rising all-around star Adoree Jackson, who’ll need the ball in his hands far, far more on offense. Even with Buck Allen jumping to the big leagues a year early, there are options and possibilities in the running game behind a line that should get all five starters back.
The defense will lose players to the pros – DE Leonard Williams should be a top five overall pick – and will go on without LB Hayes Pullard and FS Gerald Bowman, but Leon McQuay appears ready to become a star, and Su’a Cravens is a special linebacker. Excellent PK Andre Heidari is gone, but P Kris Albarado is solid.
Now is it Jacob Coker’s time at quarterback? He’ll have a chance to take over the starting gig with Blake Sims finished, but he’ll have to operate behind an O line that gets back Cam Robinson at left tackle, C Ryan Kelly, and loses everyone else. Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon were good enough to be in the NFL two years ago, but it’s Alabama – there’s depth. However, the receiving corps has to replace DeAndrew White, and Christion Jones will be missed in a variety of ways. It’ll be Derrick Henry’s running game with Tyren Jones getting more work.
The defense should return nasty up front with NG A’Shawn Robinson good enough to turn his game up a few notches. The linebacking combination of Trey DePriest and Xzavier Dickson are gone, but Denzell Duvall and Reuben Foster will be factors. The secondary loses FS Nick Perry, and SS Landon Collins is too good not to be in the NFL, but everyone else of note will be back. P J.K. Scott will be among the best in America, while Adam Griffith is an okay kicker who needs to be a bit more consistent.
Can Seth Russell be the next great Baylor quarterback, or will Chris Johnson fight for the gig? It won’t matter with a phenomenal receiving corps that should only get stronger with KD Cannon leading the way and Corey Coleman and Jay Lee more-than-fine to fill in for Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood. The offense should rely even more on the running game with Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson back working behind a line that welcomes back all five starters.
DE Shawn Oakman iis ready to turn pro, but he’s back and the rest of the line returns intact. Taylor Young needs to be the leader of the linebacking corps that loses Bryce Hager, but has several good options. The secondary might be the best yet under Art Briles with four of the five starters returning, only losing Collin Brence at the nickel. Big-booting P Spencer Roth is done, but rising PK Chris Callahan returns.
Is Jim Mora Jr. going to be offered an NFL job he can’t refuse? If he’s back, he has a ton of work to do trying to replace QB Brett Hundley, even if Jerry Neuheisel has enough experience to push for the gig. All that matters is the quarterback, because everything else is in place. Paul Perkins spent the year as one of the nation’s least-hyped star running back, but that’s not going to happen going forward. The line should get back all five starters led by center Jake Brendel, an all-star candidate and the leader of the young and emerging bunch. Great recruiting classes should make this a strength if everything goes according to plan. The biggest positive, though, could be a receiving corps that gets back everyone. Outside of RB Jordon James, there aren’t any seniors among everyone who caught a pass.
Devastating LB Eric Kendricks is done, but Myles Jack is back with the potential to be the nation’s best defender. The defensive front loses Owamagbe Odighizuwa, but Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark are back, and Deon Hollins returns to give Jack some help in the linebacking corps. Anthony Jefferson is gone, but the secondary should be loaded. The punting game could stand to be a little better with Matt Mengel needing to get the average above 40 yards per pop on a regular basis, while Ka’imi Fairbairn is a good, sound kicker who has been around long enough to be reliable.
7. Michigan State
Is Connor Cook ready to lead an NFL team? He’s back for one more year in college, but the big leagues could be tempting if he’s projected to be a top 50 pick. The passing game loses top receivers Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery, but welcomes back Macgarrett Kings, R.J. Shelton and TE Josiah Price. Workhorse RB Jeremy Langford and No. 2 man Nick Hill are gone, meaning Delton Williams will get the first look to take over the ground game behind a line that gets back three starters, but loses LG Travis Jackson and RG Connor Kruse.
DE Shilique Calhoun is too good not to be gone early to the NFL, but he’s back. However, Marcus Rush has to be replaced on the other side. However, the tackles are back and strong with Lawrence Thomas, Joel Heath, and 2014 super-recruit Malik McDowell inside. Top tackler Kurtis Drummond is gone from the secondary, and LB Taiwan Jones is finished, but Ed Davis should be one of the Big Ten’s better linebackers along with Darien Harris, but Trae Waynes was a good one at corner and he’ll be missed – he’s leaving early for the NFL. Tony Lippett will be missed in a big way at the other corner. PK Michael Geiger is back after an up-and-down year, and P Mike Sadler is gone after averaging over 41 yards per punt.
Is Jeff Lockie ready to take over for the Heisman winner, or is there another, Braxton Miller-like option out there? It’ll be interesting to see what Oregon tries to do with Marcus Mariota ready to lead an NFL franchise, but it’ll be easy to keep handing the ball off to the running back tandem of Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner. Star OT Jake Fisher is gone along with C Hroniss Grasu and LG Hamani Stevens, but Cameron Hunt and Tyrell Crosby are good veterans. The receiving corps should shine with Devon Allen and Charles Nelson leading the way, and it could be devastating if Byron Marshall decides to return for his senior year.
The defense is almost certain to lose freak-of-nature Arik Armstead on the end, and DeForest Buckner is too good not to go to the NFL, too. The linebacking corps will be the strength with Rodney Hardrick and Joe Walker back, and the secondary should be okay despite losing Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB Troy Hill and top-tackler Erick Dargan. Reggie Daniels is a good-looking safety, and Chris Seisay got in some key playing time with Ekpre-Olomu out. The combination of Matt Wogan and Aidan Schneider did a great job for the kicking game, but P Ian Wheeler needs to come up with a bit more blast after averaging under 40 yards per kick.
Expect even more of the same with the rushing tandem of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins combining forces behind the massive offensive line. Brey Cook is the only starter lost off the front five, and all of the top targets are back. Cook and TE A.J. Derby are the only two starters gone. Yes, Brandon Allen is a solid quarterback – he threw 20 touchdown passes and five picks – and he’ll work fine in the Hog attack.
The defense loses tackle-for-loss machine Trey Flowers, and the linebacking corps loses Martrell Spaight and Braylon Mitchell, but the front seven will be tough around the tackle combination of Taiwan Jones and Darius Philon and MLB Brooks Ellis. The secondary has to replace Alan Turner at free safety and nickel Tevin Mitchell. The O might be strong, but the D could be every bit as good with a little bit of time. PK Adam McFain is okay, but P Sam Irwin-Hill is gone.
10. Florida State
Is Braxton Miller really in the mix to transfer to Florida State? If not, Sean Maguire is a decent talent, even if he’s not Jameis Winston. With No. 5 gone to the NFL, and WR Rashad Greene done, the offense might work a bit more around rising superstar Dalvin Cook and the running game. The line gets gutted with tackle-turned-center Cameron Erving, OG Tre Jackson, and four starters gone, and Mackey-winning TE Nick O’Leary will be next to impossible to replace eight away. The receiving corps, even without Greene, should be excellent with Travis Rudolph and Jesus Wilson two nice targets ready to do more.
The defense is gutted by NFL losses, meaning the front four might have to undergo a wholesale change, led by the loss of Mario Edwards. LBs Terrance Smith is coming back, and the secondary will suffer major early losses, too, with corners Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams off to the NFL. Fortunately, star FS Jalen Ramsey is back, and there are several outstanding young prospects – it just might take a little time. Roberto Aguayo will once again be among the nation’s best kickers, while P Cason Beatty improved and should once again be a difference-maker.
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