2015 college football preview
No. 1 Ohio State ready to defend national championship
With the 2015 college football season set to begin Sept. 3, Local10.com previews some of the most anticipated games of the year.
Michigan at Utah
Fans and alumni hope Jim Harbaugh can restore mighty Michigan to the top of the college football pyramid again. After four seasons as head coach of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, Harbaugh returns to the college ranks at his alma mater, where he starred as quarterback for the Wolverines under Bo Schembechler in the 1980s. His Michigan debut will come against a Utah team that finished 9-4 in 2014. The Utes return seven starters on offense, led by quarterback Travis Wilson and running back Devontae Booker, and nine starters on defense. Wilson, a 6-foot-7-inch senior, has thrown for 5,308 yards and 41 touchdowns in his three years at Utah and was the most valuable player in last season's Las Vegas Bowl. Booker also returns for his senior season after rushing for 1,512 yards in 2014. Michigan fired Brady Hoke after the 5-7 debacle of last season. Shane Morris appeared to be the frontrunner at quarterback for the Wolverines after throwing for 135 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, but that was before former Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock decided to transfer to Michigan. Rudock, who graduated from Iowa with a year of eligibility remaining, started the past two seasons for the Hawkeyes and will be immediately eligible to play for the Wolverines. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is 2-0 against Michigan, winning 25-23 in 2008 and 26-10 last year, both at Michigan Stadium. This will be Michigan's first visit to Utah in school history.
North Carolina vs. South Carolina
Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, plays host to this border rivalry. Last season was a disappointment for both Carolina schools, which entered their bowl games with a .500 record. North Carolina lost to Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl, while South Carolina defeated Miami in the Independence Bowl. North Carolina has experience at quarterback with dual-threat senior Marquise Williams, who passed for 3,068 yards and ran for 788 yards last season. However, the Tar Heels finished 117th in the country in total defense, prompting head coach Larry Fedora to replace defensive coordinator Vic Koenning with former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik. Will the defense show improvement against a South Carolina offense that averaged 443.4 yards per game last season? The Gamecocks have won each of the last two meetings under head coach Steve Spurrier in 2007 and 2013. The Tar Heels haven't beaten South Carolina since 1991.
No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 18 Wisconsin
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Wisconsin opens the 2015 season the same way it closed out last season -- playing a Southeastern Conference opponent from the "Heart of Dixie." The Badgers rebounded from a horrific performance in the Big Ten Conference Championship game (losing 59-0 to Ohio State) to upend Auburn in a 34-31 overtime victory in the Outback Bowl. Now that Melvin Gordon is gone, Wisconsin will look for junior Corey Clement to carry the load at running back. Clement rushed for 949 yards and nine touchdowns behind Gordon last season. Joel Stave returns for his senior year at quarterback after a season in which he threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine), but he is still 21-7 as a starter. Conversely, Alabama begins anew at quarterback with Jacob Coker likely to inherit the job. The departed Blake Sims beat out Coker for the starting job in 2014, but now it's Coker's job to lose. Coker completed 14 of 28 passes for 183 yards in the spring game. Both teams were among the nation's best defensively in 2014. Wisconsin was fourth in the nation in total defense a season ago, while Alabama finished 12th. Still, both teams gave up the most points in the final stretch of the season (Alabama allowed Auburn to score 44 and Ohio State to score 42 in two of its final three games, while Wisconsin allowed 59 and 34 against the Buckeyes and Auburn, respectively, in its final two games). Expect one of the defenses to resemble its early-season form when these teams meet in Arlington, Texas.
No. 7 Auburn vs. Louisville
Auburn ranked 16th in total offense in 2014, but its defense simply wasn't good. The Tigers allowed an average of 26.7 points and nearly 400 yards per game last season. Those numbers should improve with the addition of former Florida head coach Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator. Auburn's defense will also be helped by the return of pass rusher Carl Lawson, who missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The sophomore defensive end had four sacks in 2013. Without Lawson, the Tigers totaled just 21 sacks (tied for 95th nationally) in 2014. Louisville, on the other hand, has been among the best defenses in the country, finishing sixth overall in 2014. This year, however, the Cardinals only return four starters on defense from a season ago. They'll also have to replace wide receiver DeVante Parker, who had 43 receptions for 855 yards and five touchdowns despite missing the first seven games last season. Atlanta has been kind to Auburn in the past. The Tigers captured the SEC championship the last time they played at the Georgia Dome in 2013. This is only the second meeting between the teams, with the Tigers defeating Louisville, 16-3, in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1974.
No. 16 Arizona State vs. Texas A&M
It seems like a distant memory when Texas A&M dazzled college football fans with an impressive victory against South Carolina to begin last season. The win was followed by four more for a 5-0 start, but as quickly as the Aggies appeared poised for a playoff push, they faded from the conversation with three straight losses en route to an 8-5 finish. Has the Texas A&M defense improved under new defensive coordinator John Chavis, who left Louisiana State to take the same position with the Aggies? Kyle Allen is hoping the offense scores enough points that it won't matter. The sophomore quarterback replaced Kenny Hill as starter midway through last season, leading Hill to transfer. Allen will look to improve upon his 1,028 passing yards and 12 touchdowns from a season ago when Arizona State meets the Aggies in Houston.
Texas at No. 11 Notre Dame
Did Texas get a break this spring when Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson announced that he was transferring? Golson's departure left Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly no choice but to proclaim junior Malik Zaire as the starter. Zaire was named last year's Music City Bowl most valuable player after completing 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 96 yards on 22 carries for a touchdown in a 31-28 victory against LSU. He will have a dependable target in junior wide receiver Will Fuller, who tied the single-season school record with 15 touchdowns in 2014. Meanwhile, the Longhorns have to replace six of the team's seven leading tacklers from last year. Junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes will compete with redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard for the starting job. Swoopes was just 5-7 as a starter in 2014 and had his worst performance (57 passing yards, one interception and negative-32 yards rushing) in a 31-7 loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl. The Irish have won each of the four previous meetings, including a 55-27 victory on the Longhorns' last visit to Notre Dame Stadium in 1995.
No. 1 Ohio State at Virginia Tech
Labor Day evening in Blacksburg, Virginia, is more than just the date of the season opener for visiting Ohio State and host Virginia Tech. It's an opportunity for the Buckeyes to avenge their lone loss from last season. Ohio State won 13 straight games after its 35-21 home loss on the way to winning the 2014 national championship. It seems like ages ago that J.T. Barrett was making just his second start at quarterback in place of Braxton Miller, who suffered a season-ending injury before the start of last season. Miller returns for one final season, but this time he'll be playing wide receiver. Barrett also returns for his redshirt sophomore campaign. Oh, there's also redshirt junior Cardale Jones, who started for an injured Barrett late last season and led the Buckeyes to victories against Wisconsin in the conference championship, Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and Oregon in the national title game. Who will be the starter for Ohio State in 2015? That's for head coach Urban Meyer to decide, but whoever it is will be well prepared for the environment that is Blacksburg. There might not be a tougher venue to play a game under the lights than at Lane Stadium. Senior quarterback Michael Brewer, who started all 13 games for the Hokies last year, threw for 199 yards and two touchdowns against the Buckeyes in 2014. Barrett threw for more yards (219) than Brewer and gained 70 yards on the ground, including a 2-yard touchdown, but he also had a career-high three interceptions in the game. The Hokies could be helped by the suspensions of four Ohio State players, including star defensive end Joey Bosa, for a violation of team rules.
No. 5 Oregon at No. 6 Michigan State
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Oregon will be without Marcus Mariota as Michigan State looks for payback after last season's 46-27 loss at Spartan Stadium. The Ducks might have lost last year's Heisman Memorial Trophy winner, but they gain a veteran who will provide immediate experience at the quarterback position. Vernon Adams comes to Oregon from Eastern Washington, where he was a two-time runner-up for the Walter Payton Award (presented to the top player in the Football Championship Subdivision). His arrival comes later than expected, however, as Adams was still finishing his undergraduate degree in August. That should give his understudy, redshirt junior Jeff Lockie, plenty of repetitions with the first-team offense as fall camp begins. While there may be uncertainty at quarterback, such is not the case at running back. Royce Freeman returns for the Ducks after rushing for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns as a true freshman.
No. 15 Mississippi at No. 3 Alabama
Alabama's lone conference loss last season came during a trip to Mississippi. A 23-17 win for the Rebels was just their ninth in the history of the series and third since the teams began playing annually in 1992 (excluding an Alabama forfeit in 1993). Three-year starting quarterback Bo Wallace, who looked brilliant at times for Ole Miss and downright bad on other occasions, has graduated, leaving the position unsettled headed into the season. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Buchanan has been patiently waiting behind Wallace, but he will be pushed by Clemson outcast Chad Kelly in the fall. Whoever starts under center will benefit from the return of junior Laquon Treadwell, who was the team's No. 1 receiver last season until he broke his leg. Treadwell had 55 yards and a touchdown in last year's game. Ole Miss has only beaten the Tide once at Alabama in 1988.
Nebraska at Miami
Two former national powers look to return to prominence in this non-conference tilt. Nebraska will make its first regular-season visit to Miami since a 17-9 victory in 1976. The Cornhuskers were victorious on their last trip to South Florida, defeating Miami, 24-17, in the 1995 Orange Bowl to claim the national championship. The Hurricanes lost, 41-31, at Nebraska last season. Miami's last win against the Cornhuskers was a 37-14 decision in the 2002 Rose Bowl, when the Hurricanes won their last national championship.
Mississippi State at No. 7 Auburn
Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott is back for his senior season. That's good news for Mississippi State fans. Prescott led the Bulldogs to their first-ever No. 1 ranking last year. The Bulldogs were the top offense in the SEC, and Prescott -- who led the league in total offense -- was a big reason why. Prescott set 12 single-season school records in 2014, including touchdowns (42), passing yards (3,449) and passing efficiency (151.7 rating). He threw for 246 yards and a touchdown and ran for 121 yards and two more touchdowns in a 38-23 win against Auburn last year. Junior quarterback Jeremy Johnson takes the reigns at Auburn after serving as backup to Nick Marshall the past two seasons. Johnson started last season's opener against Arkansas, passing for 243 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.
No. 3 Alabama at No. 9 Georgia
This game is sure to bring back memories of the 2012 SEC Championship, when Alabama stopped Georgia at the goal line for a 32-28 victory. There was a time when the SEC Eastern Division used to rule the roost. Not anymore. The Western Division has claimed six consecutive conference crowns. Alabama is responsible for half of them. Former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who has served as an offensive assistant since Mark Richt took over the program in 2001, left his alma mater to become head coach at Colorado State. In Bobo's place, Richt hired former New York Jets and St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who served as a backup quarterback to 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel at rival Florida. Schottenheimer will have an open quarterback competition to replace Hutson Mason this season. Greyson Lambert, who transferred from Virginia and is able to play immediately, joins sophomore Brice Ramsey and junior Faton Bauta. Despite the uncertainty at quarterback, the Bulldogs are still the team to beat in the East, but will it be enough to overthrow the defending SEC champions?
No. 15 Mississippi at Florida
The last time the Rebels came to "The Swamp," former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow had to apologize to the fans and promise to "play harder" after Florida's 31-30 loss to Ole Miss in 2008. The Gators went on to win a national championship. That's not likely to happen this year, win or lose, but it could serve as motivation for the Gators under new head coach Jim McElwain. Treon Harris returns for his sophomore season at quarterback for the Gators, but redshirt freshman Will Grier will compete for the starting job. Grier threw for 14,565 yards in high school and appeared to have the edge on Harris, but the competition will continue in the fall. Ole Miss returns seven starters from last season's top scoring defense in the country, but among the losses were All-American defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt.
Texas at No. 2 Texas Christian
The Longhorns have swapped Texas Christian for Texas A&M as their new state rival. TCU has defeated Texas twice since joining the Big 12 Conference in 2012, but a 30-7 victory for the Longhorns came on their last visit to Fort Worth in 2013. Trevone Boykin was just 3-of-4 passing for 24 yards in that game. Don't expect another stat line like that this time. The senior quarterback could win the Heisman if he replicates the numbers he produced last season, throwing for 3,901 yards (eighth nationally) and 33 touchdowns (seventh). Boykin passed for two touchdowns and ran for another in TCU's 48-10 victory last season. Texas had five turnovers, resulting in 24 points for the Horned Frogs.
Miami at No. 8 Florida State
Golson will compete for the chance to replace 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at Florida State. The Notre Dame transfer had an impressive performance against the Seminoles last season, throwing for 313 yards and three touchdowns in a losing effort. Redshirt junior Sean Maguire, who was Winston's backup last season, is also in the mix. Miami led 23-7 in last year's game before the Seminoles rallied for a 30-26 win. FSU running back and Miami native Dalvin Cook ran for two scores, including a 26-yard touchdown with 3:05 remaining that proved to be the difference in the game. However, Cook's status with the Seminoles is in jeopardy this season. He was suspended indefinitely in July after he was accused of punching a woman in the face outside a bar. Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya passed for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns last season on his way to being named ACC rookie of the year. Kaaya threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns in last year's game, but FSU cornerback Jalen Ramsey sealed the victory by picking off Kaaya's final pass with 39 seconds remaining. Florida State is 5-0 against Miami under Fisher. Bobby Bowden was in his 34th and final season at FSU in 2009 the last time the Hurricanes beat the Seminoles. That game was, like this year's meeting, in Tallahassee.
No. 19 Oklahoma vs. Texas
Does this game even matter anymore? The "Red River Showdown" was once the premiere rivalry in the Big 12, but it has taken a backseat in recent years. Texas and Oklahoma are 5-5 in the last 10 games at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, but the Sooners have won four of the past five. After a disappointing 8-5 finish in 2014, including a 40-6 blowout loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops fired co-offensive coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell (who was subsequently hired by Texas as its wide receivers coach) and opened the quarterback competition in 2015. Baker Mayfield, who transferred from Texas Tech last season but had to sit out and lose a year of eligibility because of Big 12 transfer rules, will battle incumbent Trevor Knight for the starting job. Knight failed to live up to his 2014 Sugar Bowl performance (348 passing yards and four touchdowns), throwing just two more touchdowns (14) than interceptions (12) last season. Carrying the load for the Sooners again this year will be running back Samaje Perine, who rushed for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns as a true freshman last season, including a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 427 yards in a game. On the other side of the football, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was reassigned from defensive backs to outside linebackers and moved from the sideline to the coaches box after the Sooners gave up a school-record 276.2 yards per game last season. That might not be much of a concern against Texas, however, as the Longhorns tied for 88th nationally in passing and were 106th in scoring last season.
Florida at No. 23 Missouri
Florida has had trouble with the westernmost team in the SEC East. Missouri beat the Gators each of the past two seasons, including last year's 42-13 drubbing in Florida's homecoming game. The Gators will be out for payback at Missouri, where Florida lost, 36-17, on its last visit in 2013. Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk made his first start in that game, throwing for 295 yards and a touchdown. Can Mauk improve to 3-0 against Florida? The Tigers have won the SEC East each of the past two seasons.
No. 18 Wisconsin at Nebraska
Both Big Ten West Division rivals enter the 2015 season with new coaches and starting running backs. Wisconsin hired alumnus Paul Chryst away from Pittsburgh to replace Gary Anderson, who left to become head coach at Oregon State, which lost Mike Riley to the same job at Nebraska. Gordon is gone after rushing for a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 408 yards and four touchdowns in Wisconsin's 59-24 win last year. The Badgers shouldn't have a problem filling the void with Clement. Meanwhile, junior Terrell Newby and senior Imani Cross will battle to replace the departed Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska.
West Virginia at No. 4 Baylor
The only thing that stood in the way of an undefeated season for Baylor was a 41-27 loss to West Virginia last season. The Mountaineers had their best season since joining the Big 12, but they lose their top two receivers (Kevin White and Mario Alford) and starting quarterback (Clint Trickett) from 2014. Junior quarterback Skyler Howard started the final two games of last season, finishing with 829 passing yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions. He will get the nod for the Mountaineers in 2015. Baylor quarterback Seth Russell steps in for Bryce Petty, who led the Bears to two Big 12 championships and a 21-4 record as a starter. Russell saw considerable playing time as Petty's backup, throwing for 1,231 yards and 11 touchdowns in his Baylor career. Baylor's entire starting offensive line returns in 2015, which could prove beneficial against West Virginia. The Bears allowed four sacks and set a Big 12 record with 215 yards in last year's loss.
Penn State at No. 1 Ohio State
Penn State struggled in its first season of the James Franklin era, finishing 7-6 with an overtime victory against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. It's hard to believe that Franklin is Penn State's second full-time head coach (and third overall) since the late Joe Paterno was fired during the 2011 season. Franklin turned perennial SEC bottom feeder Vanderbilt into a winner, but expectations are higher than one game above .500 in "Happy Valley." Junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg returns for the Nittany Lions in 2015. Hackenberg struggled behind an inexperienced offensive line last year, getting sacked 44 times and throwing 15 interceptions. He'll need better protection to be successful against the defending national champions. The Buckeyes survived a close call at Penn State last year, winning 31-24 in double overtime. Bosa preserved the victory with a game-ending sack.
Louisville at No. 8 Florida State
Florida State welcomes Louisville in its inaugural visit to Tallahassee as a member of the ACC. Sophomore quarterback Reggie Bonnafon began the 2014 season as the understudy to junior Will Gardner, but Bonnafon is expected to win the starting job in 2015. Gardner threw for a career-best 330 yards against FSU before a knee injury cut his season short and kept him out of spring practice. Bonnafon was impressive in Louisville's spring game, throwing for 238 yards and a touchdown and running for 37 yards and another score. The nation's sixth-ranked defense loses linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin (13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks) and safety Gerod Holliman (2014 Jim Thorpe Award winner who tied an NCAA record with 14 interceptions in a season), but the Cardinals will turn to transfers to fill the void. Former standout TCU linebacker Devonte Fields was the 2012 Big 12 defensive player of the year, while safety Josh Harvey-Clemons compiled 66 tackles and an interception at Georgia in 2013. FSU overcame a 24-7 deficit in the third quarter of last year's meeting to win, 42-31. The Cardinals were shut out, 31-0, on their last trip to Tallahassee in 2000.
No. 8 Florida State at No. 17 Georgia Tech
Florida State visits Georgia Tech for a rematch of last year's ACC Championship game. FSU beat the Coastal Division champions for the ACC title in 2012 and 2014, but the Yellow Jackets have won the last two regular-season meetings, including a 31-28 victory the last time the Seminoles came to Atlanta in 2008. Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas ran for 104 yards and threw for 134 yards and a touchdown in last year's game, but the Seminoles still won, 37-35. FSU has won 24 straight against conference opponents, including championship games. If the Seminoles enter this game undefeated in ACC play, that number increases to 28. Does the streak end in Atlanta?
Florida vs. No. 9 Georgia
The Gators surprised Georgia at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida, last season, snapping a three-game losing streak to the Bulldogs and giving them their only quality win in 2014. Florida running back Kelvin Taylor -- whose father, Fred Taylor, was a star for the Gators in the 1990s and spent 11 seasons digging his cleats into the same turf as a Pro Bowl player for the Jacksonville Jaguars -- carried the ball 25 times for a career-high 197 yards and two touchdowns in the 38-20 victory. The younger Taylor will be back in 2015 after amassing 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons. The Bulldogs should be equally imposing on the ground after the emergence of Nick Chubb last season. After Todd Gurley was suspended, Chubb took over and finished the season with 1,547 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. The SEC freshman of the year had at least 100 yards rushing in eight straight games, becoming the first Georgia player to do so since 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker. Florida's win last year improved its record to 19-6 against its border rival since the start of the Spurrier era in 1990.
No. 8 Florida State at No. 12 Clemson
The winner of this rivalry game has represented the Atlantic Division in the ACC title game each year since 2009. Florida State narrowly escaped Clemson at home in a 23-17 overtime victory last season. Maguire threw for 304 yards and a touchdown in the win. The Seminoles have won three in a row, including a 51-14 walloping on their last trip to "Death Valley" in 2013. However, the Tigers won the previous five meetings at Clemson. The Tigers had the nation's No. 1 defense last season, allowing an average of 260.8 yards and 16.7 points per game. A big part of their success was two-time All-American and ACC defensive player of the year Vic Beasley, who led the team with 21.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. Beasley leaves Clemson as the school's all-time career sacks leader (33), but junior defensive end Shaq Lawson is primed to become as much of a pass-rushing threat as his predecessor. Lawson has 21 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in two seasons as a backup. Clemson also has a dark horse Heisman candidate in sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, who threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman despite battling injuries that limited his playing time to just eight games. This could be the year that the Tigers reclaim the division from FSU.
No. 13 Louisiana State at No. 3 Alabama
Louisiana State finished the 2014 season 8-5 -- tied for its worst record under head coach Les Miles. The passing game was anemic, finishing 114th nationally with an average of 162.9 yards per game. Because of LSU's offensive woes, there is an open competition at quarterback between junior Anthony Jennings, who started last season, and sophomore Brandon Harris. Neither quarterback won the job in the spring, so Miles said the battle would continue in the fall. That was before Jennings was suspended from the team after his June arrest. Jennings was reinstated prior to the start of fall practice after it was announced that he wouldn't face criminal charges. It was a busy offseason for Miles, who also had to replace departed defensive coordinator John Chavis. LSU's new defensive coordinator is Kevin Steele, who served in the same capacity at Alabama under head coach Nick Saban in 2007 and was the Tide's linebackers coach last year. Alabama has won four in a row against Saban's former team, although LSU's last win came in a 9-6 kicking clinic in Tuscaloosa in 2011. The Tigers went on to win the SEC, but Alabama won the national title by shutting out LSU, 21-0, in a rematch. The Tigers have arguably one of the best running backs in the country. Leonard Fournette set a school freshman rushing record with 1,034 yards last season. If the Tigers can settle their quarterback situation, LSU should be in good position to win 10 or more games for the eighth time since Miles replaced Saban in 2005.
No. 3 Alabama at Mississippi State
Alabama ended Mississippi State's 12-game winning streak last season. It was the second time in three years that Alabama spoiled Mississippi State's chances of an undefeated season. In 2012, the Bulldogs were 7-0 before a trip to Tuscaloosa derailed Mississippi State's season. The Bulldogs unraveled, winning just once in the final six games to finish 4-4 in the SEC and 8-5 overall. Last year, Mississippi State seemed poised to overcome a 19-point deficit, outgaining Alabama offensively 428 yards to 335, but Prescott threw three interceptions, including two in the end zone, in the 25-20 loss. The Bulldogs haven't beaten Alabama since a 17-12 home victory in 2007. If the Bulldogs intend to win the SEC West -- something they haven't done since 1998 -- they'll need to get past the Tide.
Florida at South Carolina
Spurrier is 5-5 against his alma mater since coming to South Carolina in 2005. The Gamecocks have beaten the Gators in consecutive seasons, including a 23-20 overtime victory at Florida last year, and won four of the past five meetings. Both teams were mediocre in 2014, but each has reason for improvement this year. South Carolina junior Pharoh Cooper is the leading returning receiver in the SEC after his 1,136-yard campaign last season. His experience will be essential as only one other receiver on the roster has a catch. Connor Mitch and Perry Orth are vying for the starting quarterback job to replace Dylan Thompson, who set a single-season school passing record in 2014. Mitch and Orth have combined to go 3 for 9 passing for 24 yards in their careers. The Gators have a talented crop of defensive backs, led by junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who had more interceptions (16) than touchdowns allowed (15) last season. They make up a defensive unit that has ranked in the top 15 nationally for seven straight years, so don't expect much to change now that McElwain is in charge.
No. 6 Michigan State at No. 1 Ohio State
Bosa had 13 sacks as a sophomore for the Buckeyes last season, but the All-American had just one sack against Michigan State -- tied for a season low -- in a 49-37 win that decided the Big Ten East Division. Ohio State was the Spartans' only conference loss of 2014. Fourth-year junior quarterback Connor Cook returns for the Spartans after throwing for 358 yards and two touchdowns in last year's losing effort. Ohio State is 21-0 in Big Ten regular-season games under Meyer. The only conference loss of the Meyer era was a 34-24 upset by Michigan State in the 2013 Big Ten title game.
No. 10 Southern California at No. 5 Oregon
This Pacific 12 Conference tilt returns after a two-year absence in what could be a preview of the Pac-12 title game. Southern California is considered the favorite to win the South Division, while Oregon is the leading contender in the North Division. The Ducks won conference crowns last season and in 2011, but the Trojans are still seeking their first division title and appearance in the championship game. Oregon won the last meeting -- a 62-51 shootout in Los Angeles in 2012. USC hasn't visited Autzen Stadium since a 38-35 win in 2011.
No. 22 Arizona at No. 16 Arizona State
The winner of this desert rivalry takes home the Territorial Cup, which currently resides in Tucson, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated Arizona State, 42-35, last season, giving Arizona the Pac-12 South title. It was the first time since 1986 that both teams were ranked. Arizona State has fielded a top-20 scoring offense in each season since head coach Todd Graham was hired in 2012. Fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Bercovici replaces three-year starter Taylor Kelly, who exhausted his eligibility after an injury-plagued 2014 season. Bercovici was 2-1 as a fill-in starter last year, defeating USC on a "Hail Mary" pass and Stanford. Not to be outdone at quarterback, Anu Solomon returns for Arizona after leading all freshmen nationally with 3,793 passing yards last season. All-American junior linebacker Scooby Wright, whose 163 tackles, 29 for loss, 14 sacks and six forced fumbles earned him Pac-12 defensive player of the year honors, will once again lead Arizona's defense.
No. 11 Notre Dame vs. Boston College
For the first time since the NFL's Boston Patriots left Fenway Park after the 1968 season, football returns to the historic baseball stadium in 2015. The longtime home of the Boston Red Sox will host the "Holy War" between Jesuit-founded Boston College and its Catholic rivals from Notre Dame. Although the game is being played about four miles from Boston College's Chestnut Hill campus, it is technically a home game for the Irish. As the away team, Boston College only receives 5,000 tickets at the 37,673-seat ballpark. Demand to attend is so great that Boston College is requiring a minimum $5,000 from donors just to receive a pair of tickets, valued at $400 each. Tickets are fetching hefty prices on the secondary market, ranging from about $600 to thousands of dollars depending upon the seat location. Will the game be able to live up to the hype? The Eagles are starting over at quarterback. Darius Wade has the most experience, throwing eight passes as a freshman last season, but 1984 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie's nephew, sophomore Troy Flutie, and true freshman Elijah Robinson will also compete for the job. Boston College has a history of defeating Notre Dame when the Irish are the higher-ranked team. Irish fans are sure to remember crushing losses at Notre Dame Stadium in 1993 and 2002 when their team was undefeated. The Eagles last defeated Notre Dame in 2008. Since then, Notre Dame has won four in a row, including a 21-6 victory in the last meeting in 2012.
Northwestern at No. 18 Wisconsin
Northwestern might have scored the upset of 2014 when the Wildcats defeated Wisconsin, handing the Badgers their only regular-season conference loss. Redshirt freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike had three interceptions in the game, becoming the first Northwestern player with three picks since 1973, while freshman running back Justin Jackson rushed for 162 yards and junior receiver Miles Shuler also ran for a touchdown in the 20-14 win. All three return in 2015. The question remains who will lead the Wildcats behind center -- senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti or sophomore Clayton Thorson.
No. 4 Baylor at No. 2 Texas Christian
Move over, Texas and Oklahoma. There is a new de facto championship game in the Big 12. Baylor and TCU are the teams to beat these days. The only blemish on the Horned Frogs' 2014 schedule was a 61-58 shootout loss. Despite the Big 12's "one true champion" slogan, TCU and Baylor finished with one conference loss each and were crowned co-champions, even though Baylor had beaten TCU on the field. Baylor head coach Art Briles was vocal that his team -- and his team alone -- should be the champion by virtue of the head-to-head outcome. The controversy over whether to crown Baylor, TCU or both may have canceled out the Big 12 in the College Football Playoff top four and ultimately led the conference to change its policy, which no longer recognizes multiple champions.
No. 3 Alabama at No. 7 Auburn
Alabama is the preseason pick to win the SEC West, but the Tigers were picked to win the conference. Jordan-Hare Stadium was the setting of one of the most exciting "Iron Bowl" finishes when Alabama's 57-yard field-goal attempt came up short and former Auburn kick returner sprinted from end zone to end zone for the game-winning touchdown two years ago. Auburn's 34-28 win propelled the Tigers to the SEC title game and a berth in the national championship game, while ending Alabama's quest for a third consecutive national championship. The stakes could be just as high this season, particularly if Johnson, who was Alabama's Mr. Football in 2012, is as good as advertised. Alabama has won five of the past seven meetings, including last year in a 55-44 shootout that became the highest-scoring game in the history of the rivalry.
No. 9 Georgia at No. 17 Georgia Tech
It was "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate" in Athens last season when Georgia Tech upended the Bulldogs, 30-24, in overtime. Georgia Tech cornerback D.J. White picked off a pass in overtime to seal the win in a mistake-prone game for both teams. Georgia fumbled at the 1-yard line twice and Georgia Tech once. There were also three blocked kicks in the game. Harrison Butker kicked a career-long 53-yard field goal on the final play of regulation to send the game into overtime. Butker is back for his junior year, while White returns for his senior season after leading the team with four interceptions. Last year's game was the second consecutive season that the state rivals played beyond the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs won, 41-34, in double overtime the last time they traveled to Georgia Tech. In fact, the Yellow Jackets are still looking for their first home win against Georgia this century. Georgia Tech hasn't beaten the Bulldogs in Atlanta since a 51-48 overtime win in 1999. The Bulldogs are 12-2 against Georgia Tech under Richt.
No. 14 UCLA at No. 10 Southern California
The Trojans have taken a backseat to UCLA in this crosstown rivalry, losing three straight games to the Bruins. It is USC's longest losing streak since UCLA won eight in a row from 1991-98. Is this the year that USC takes back Los Angeles? The Trojans return senior quarterback Cody Kessler, who threw for 39 touchdowns and only five interceptions last season. The Bruins, meanwhile, lose three-year starting quarterback Brett Hundley to the NFL, so UCLA head coach Jim Mora will turn to true freshman Josh Rosen, who joined the team in the spring. UCLA will also count on versatile junior Myles Jack, who can play both linebacker and running back. The Bruins' last two trips to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum were drastically different -- they pummeled the Trojans, 35-14, in 2013 and were pummeled by the Trojans, 50-0, in 2011.
No. 1 Ohio State at Michigan
The Wolverines, who routinely challenged for Big Ten championships during the Schembechler era, haven't won the conference title since 2004 and have yet to play for the conference crown since the Big Ten split into divisions in 2011. Only once has the program mustered more than 10 wins in a season (2011) since Lloyd Carr retired after the 2007 season. The 2011 season was also Michigan's only win against the Buckeyes in the past 11 years, but Michigan fans hope that Harbaugh will reverse that trend. Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott was most impressive when it mattered most last season, rushing for 696 yards and eight touchdowns as the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin for the Big Ten championship, Alabama in the semifinal Sugar Bowl and Oregon for the national championship. Elliott finished his sophomore season with 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns, including 121 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries against the Wolverines.
No. 8 Florida State at Florida
The Gators got out to a 9-0 start and intercepted Winston four times, including three in the first quarter, but Florida State rallied for a 24-19 victory against its state rival. The Seminoles have won four of the past five meetings, including consecutive wins in "The Swamp." A third straight victory in Gainesville would be a first for FSU. Florida's once-vaunted offense has been downright abysmal in recent years. The Seminoles have outscored Florida 58-14 in their previous two trips to Gainesville.
No. 12 Clemson at South Carolina
Watson played with a torn ACL to beat South Carolina last year, throwing for 269 yards and two touchdowns in the 35-17 victory. Clemson's win snapped a five-game losing streak to the Gamecocks. South Carolina's defense slid in 2014, so Spurrier put defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward on notice by hiring Chicago Bears assistant coach Jon Hoke as co-defensive coordinator with Ward this season. Hoke served as Spurrier's defensive coordinator at Florida during his final three seasons there. Hoke's emphasis will be on improving the secondary and pass defense, which allowed an average of 220.5 yards per game last season. Clemson will try to win in Columbia for the first time since 2007.
No. 15 Mississippi at Mississippi State
In the 2013 "Egg Bowl," Prescott came off the bench for Mississippi State in the fourth quarter to lead a 17-10 comeback win. Prescott began the season as a backup, but by the end of the game, he was the unquestioned starter. Last season, both teams were ranked for the first time since 1999, but the Rebels were victorious. Despite losing 31-17, Prescott still threw for 282 yards and rushed for 48 more, scoring a pair of touchdowns through the air and on the ground. Prescott's performance will be a key to the Bulldogs' success against their Magnolia State rival. The Rebels haven't won at Mississippi State since 2003.
No. 19 Oklahoma at Oklahoma State
The "Bedlam Series" has been balanced in recent years, with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State splitting the past four games. Last year it was Oklahoma State that prevailed, 38-35 in overtime. It was the second overtime game in three seasons after the Sooners won, 51-48, at home in 2012. Oklahoma State last beat the Sooners at home, 44-10, in 2011. The Cowboys haven't won two in a row against Oklahoma since 2002.
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