Which teams could exceed preseason expectations?
Making preseason predictions or assembling rankings for all 130 college football teams is never easy. After all, it’s impossible to be 100 percent accurate at the end of any season. The emergence of breakout players, injuries, bad luck are just a few reasons why some teams don’t live up to the preseason hype. Additionally, college football always produces a handful of teams that exceed preseason expectations and end up better than predicted prior to the start of the season.
Which teams will finish 2017 as a “breakout team” or exceed preseason expectations? In order to select a handful of teams that could reach this designation, we established a criteria of picking programs that won seven or fewer games in 2016. Additionally, we selected one from every conference.
Here are 15 teams that could have a breakout season and easily exceed preseason expectations.
15 CFB Teams Poised for a Breakout Season in 2017
If the Wolfpack had a home in the ACC’s Coastal Division, it’s likely this team would be the preseason favorite over Miami or Virginia Tech. Instead, coach Dave Doeren’s team is in the deep Atlantic Division, featuring three of the nation’s top-10 teams in Florida State and Clemson, along with Louisville. Finishing ahead of those three programs isn’t going to be easy in 2017. However, NC State lost to Clemson in overtime and nearly defeated Florida State (24-20), so the potential is there for a breakthrough year. The strength of Doeren’s team this fall is a defensive line that features All-America end Bradley Chubb (10.5 sacks in 2016), along with two underrated tackles in B.J. Hill and Justin Jones. This unit gave up only 22.8 points per game last year and returns nearly intact up front, with the secondary expected to feature three new starters. More is expected in 2017 from an offense that ranked ninth in the ACC in scoring last fall. Quarterback Ryan Finley is back for a second year under center, and all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels is a first-team Athlon Sports All-American. Finley also has two emerging stars to target at receiver in Stephen Louis and Kelvin Harmon. The offensive line returns four starters and should be one of the best in the ACC. Doeren’s biggest concern on offense is identifying a new starting running back after the departure of Matt Dayes. Converted receiver Nyheim Hines and junior Reggie Gallaspy will shoulder most of the load. Even if NC State falls short of finishing in the top three in the Atlantic Division, a spot among the top 25 teams by the end of 2017 is very realistic.
The Mustangs made a three-game jump in wins from 2015 to 2016, and this program is on the cusp of earning a winning record and a bowl trip in coach Chad Morris’ third year. SMU is loaded with firepower on offense and is poised for marked improvement on the stat sheet after averaging 27.8 points per game last fall. Quarterback Ben Hicks (19 TDs, 2,930 yards) returns after starting 11 games as a freshman last season. He should be better in his second year under center, especially with a receiving corps that ranks as the best in the American Athletic Conference. Junior Courtland Sutton is an Athlon Sports All-American, and he’s joined by LSU transfer Trey Quinn and sophomore James Proche as key targets. Running back Braeden West headlines a solid stable of rushers after leading the team with 1,036 yards last year. The offensive line and defense remain the biggest concerns for Morris in 2017. The defense is a little unsettled up front and in the secondary, but there’s enough offensive firepower to win plenty of shootouts.
The Cyclones are picked by most to finish eighth or lower in the Big 12 this fall. But don’t be surprised if coach Matt Campbell’s team makes a run at a bowl game in 2017. Iowa State finished 3-9 in Campbell’s debut last fall but lost five games by 10 points or less. The Cyclones showed promise late in the 2016 season, especially after Jacob Park took over as the starting quarterback. In his first action in Ames, Park threw for 1,791 yards and 12 touchdowns. With a full year to work as the starter, Park is one of Athlon’s breakout quarterbacks for 2017. The junior has a deep group of receivers at his disposal, including senior Allen Lazard. The offensive line is a concern for the second year in a row. Only five starters are back on defense, but this unit should get a boost from the addition of a couple of junior college linemen in the trenches. The secondary could be the Big 12’s most underrated unit and added depth over the offseason with the arrival of Georgia transfer Reggie Wilkerson. A schedule that features five Big 12 road games doesn’t provide many breaks. However, Campbell has this team trending up, and the Cyclones have just enough firepower on offense to push for six wins and a bowl trip.
Considering Texas ranks 17th nationally in roster talent since 2013, it’s surprising to see this program enter 2017 with three consecutive losing seasons. But that’s where new coach Tom Herman finds this team after taking over for Charlie Strong. Herman’s first year at Houston yielded a five-game improvement in the win column and another new coach bump should be expected in Austin this fall. The Longhorns averaged 31.9 points a game last season, but Herman’s background will help this unit take a step forward. Quarterback Shane Buechele is being pushed by true freshman Sam Ehlinger, and the winner of this job has a solid core of skill talent at their disposal. Replacing D’Onta Foreman’s 2,028 rushing yards won’t be easy, but the trio of Chris Warren, Kyle Porter and Toeneil Carter is more than capable. Depth in the trenches on both sides of the ball is a concern after a couple of offseason transfers. The addition of coordinator Todd Orlando should pay immediate dividends for a defense that gave up 31.5 points per game last fall. There’s too much talent for Texas to finish 5-7 or rank near the bottom of the Big 12 in the four main statistical defensive categories. A New Year’s Six bowl is likely out of reach, but the Longhorns should at least improve their win total by two or three games.
Wisconsin is the clear favorite to win the Big Ten West Division, but there’s a lot of uncertainty this preseason about which team could be the biggest challenger to the Badgers in 2017. Northwestern is Athlon’s pick to finish second in the West, as this team rebounded from a slow start (1-3) to go 7-3 over the final 10 games. Building off that finish is within reach for coach Pat Fitzgerald’s squad, as the offense returns quarterback Clayton Thorson and standout running back Justin Jackson. Thorson needs to find a new go-to receiver after the departure of Austin Carr, but the junior quarterback has made considerable progress as a passer over the last two seasons. The Wildcats quietly limited opponents to 22.2 points a game last fall and return a strong foundation with seven starters. The biggest concern for this unit is at linebacker following the departures of Anthony Walker and Jaylen Prater. Northwestern will quickly find out where it stacks up in the West Division, as a trip to Madison to take on Wisconsin awaits on Sept. 30. A week later, the Wildcats take on Penn State in Evanston. Even if Northwestern goes 0-2 in those contests, this team has a shot to win nine games.
With Lane Kiffin at the helm, FAU will be one of the most interesting teams in college football for 2017. The Owls went 3-9 last year, but Kiffin should get more out of this roster and maximize some of the talent in the program. Additionally, Kiffin is getting help from the transfer ranks, which include former Auburn quarterback/receiver John Franklin, Pitt defensive lineman Jeremiah Taleni and junior college recruits De’Andre Johnson (QB) and DeAndre McNeal (WR). Johnson originally started his collegiate career at Florida State and was expected to claim the starting job this fall. However, Jason Driskel and Daniel Parr are pushing for the top spot on the depth chart, giving Kiffin a couple of options under center. Regardless of what transpires at quarterback, FAU possesses one of the deepest backfields in the Group of 5 ranks, headlined by sophomore Devin Singletary. The line will also receive a boost from the return of tackle Reggie Bain, who missed all of 2016 due to injury. The defense allowed nearly 40 points a game last fall and remains the team's biggest concern. How will the Owls replace standout end Trey Hendrickson? If Kiffin finds the right answer at quarterback, FAU’s offense should lead the program to a bowl trip for the first time since 2008.
Second-year coach Frank Wilson has UTSA on the rise entering 2017. The Roadrunners claimed their first bowl trip last fall and return a strong foundation with 13 returning starters. And with Wilson at the helm, it should be no surprise UTSA is recruiting at a high level within Conference USA. Louisiana Tech is the heavy favorite to win the C-USA West Division, but UTSA has the pieces to stay in the mix. Quarterback Dalton Sturm is back after throwing 20 touchdowns to just six interceptions in his first full year as the starter. He’s supported by one of C-USA’s top receiving corps, along with promising junior running back Jalen Rhodes. The strength of Wilson’s team in 2017 should be the defense. Tackling machine Josiah Tauaefa (115 stops last fall) headlines a group that returns seven starters and features one of C-USA's top defensive fronts. Last year, UTSA limited opponents to 27.9 points per game, and the personnel is in place to expect improvement on the stat sheet. The schedule also breaks in the Roadrunners’ favor. UTSA won’t play the top three teams – MTSU, WKU and Old Dominion – from the East and host Southern Miss in early October. Assuming UTSA can generate some improvement out of the passing game and offensive line, the showdown against Louisiana Tech on Nov. 25 could have huge West Division implications.
Several factors played into Notre Dame’s 4-8 record last year, which prompted significant changes by coach Brian Kelly this offseason. The most important tweaks came on the coaching staff, as Kelly hired Chip Long to handle the play-calling duties on offense, and Mike Elko arrived to call the defensive signals. Long and Elko are two of the nation’s top coordinator hires for 2017 and should allow Kelly to function more as a program CEO. While the coaching hires provide an instant boost in X’s and O’s and overall production on both sides of the ball, Notre Dame is due for better luck this fall. The Fighting Irish lost seven of their eight games by eight points or less and posted a minus-four turnover margin. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush is primed for a breakout year in his first season as the starter, with the sophomore possessing one of the nation’s top receiving corps and offensive lines at his disposal. The defense enters 2017 with more question marks than the offense, but Elko has talent to work with at each level, including end Daelin Hayes, linebacker Nyles Morgan and defensive back Drue Tranquill. Also helping Notre Dame’s case for a big rebound in 2017 is a favorable schedule. Games against Georgia, USC and NC State take place in South Bend, and road trips to Miami and Stanford are in November, allowing plenty of time for Elko to address some of the preseason concerns on defense.
The RedHawks were one of the nation’s most improved teams from Week 1 to the end of the 2016 season. After an 0-6 start, coach Chuck Martin’s team won six straight games to earn a trip to the St. Petersburg Bowl and a second-place finish in the MAC’s East Division. The main reason for the second-half improvement was the emergence of quarterback Gus Ragland. After sitting out the first six games due to a knee injury, Ragland returned in October and guided the team to a 6-1 finish over the final seven contests. Ragland is a full year removed from the knee injury that limited him to seven contests in 2016 and should rank as one of the MAC’s best quarterbacks. The junior is surrounded by one of the MAC’s top receiving corps, along with a line that returns four starters from last season. The RedHawks finished third in the MAC in scoring defense last fall and return eight starters for 2017. This unit has a few voids to fill off the edge, but the linebacker unit and secondary rank among the best in the conference. Miami hasn’t played for the MAC Championship since 2010 and has posted a losing record in six consecutive seasons. With an offense poised to show marked improvement, and a defense expected to rank as one of the best in the MAC, Martin’s team is due to reverse those recent numbers and earn a trip to Detroit this December.
Boise State and San Diego State are the preseason favorites in the Mountain West. However, could a surprise team emerge out of the Mountain Division like Wyoming did last year to topple the Broncos at the top? Don’t rule it out, as Colorado State has enough firepower to win the division in coach Mike Bobo’s third year in Fort Collins. The offense finished 2016 on a tear, averaging 47.8 points a game over the final six contests. Quarterback Nick Stevens returns after taking over the full-time job again midway through last season, and Athlon Sports All-American Michael Gallup is back on the outside after catching 76 passes for 1,272 yards and 14 scores. Not only are the Rams set at receiver, but the stable of running backs is among the best in the Mountain West, and the offensive line should be solid behind center Jake Bennett. Last year’s defense gave up 30.4 points per game, but there’s hope for improvement with eight returning starters and a return by linebacker Deonte Clyburn after missing 2016 due to injury. Colorado State has road trips to Alabama, Hawaii, Wyoming and New Mexico. However, a potential showdown against Boise State to decide the Mountain Division takes place in Fort Collins in the debut season of Colorado State’s new stadium.
Third-year coach Tony Sanchez has the Rebels trending in the right direction, and the rebuilding effort in Las Vegas should get a boost with the emergence of quarterback Armani Rogers. The redshirt freshman was UNLV’s top recruit in the 2016 signing class and brings an intriguing dual-threat ability to the offense. Some ups and downs are expected, but Rogers’ development and potential adds to a promising offense that already features one of the Mountain West’s top backfields and a deep receiving corps with standout senior Devonte Boyd leading the way. Additionally, the Rebels return four starters up front. The biggest concern for Sanchez is a defense that gave up 36.8 points per game in 2016 and returns only two starters. Each level of the defense was hit by departures and four junior college recruits could help right away. In order for UNLV to hit six wins, winning on the road in swing contests against Nevada, New Mexico, Fresno State and Idaho are a must.
The Ducks are coming off their first losing record (4-8) since 1994. But this program won’t be down for long under new coach Willie Taggart. Sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert is a rising star and primed for a breakout year in his first full season as the starter. He’s joined by senior running back Royce Freeman (Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2017), all-purpose threat Charles Nelson, and an offensive line that returns four starters and regains the services of left tackle Tyrell Crosby (back from injury). Oregon’s defense has struggled over the last two years, but Taggart took a big step in fixing this unit by hiring Jim Leavitt from Colorado. Leavitt will transition the defense to a 3-4 approach, which figures to be a better fit for the personnel than the 4-3 scheme utilized in 2016. Linebacker Troy Dye is one of the best in the Pac-12, and Leavitt could dip into the freshmen ranks for immediate help on the depth chart. The Ducks may need another year to develop the defense, but the offense is going to score its share of points in 2017. Trips to Stanford and Washington will decide where Oregon stacks up in the Pac-12 North Division. However, the rest of the slate is manageable, allowing Taggart an opportunity to win nine games in his first year in Eugene.
Related: Pac-12 Football 2017 Predictions
The Bulldogs opened 2016 with uncertainty in the post-Dak Prescott era. However, this team rallied from a 2-5 start to win four out of their last six games, including a 55-20 victory over rival Ole Miss and a 17-16 win over Miami (Ohio) in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Coach Dan Mullen’s team enters 2017 with fewer question marks than last year’s squad and returns one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Nick Fitzgerald. The dual-threat junior is the type of quarterback that can carry a team to an upset win or two, but he also needs a little more help from the supporting cast. The offensive line and depth at receiver are Mullen’s biggest concerns on offense for 2017. New coordinator Todd Grantham inherits a defense that gave up 31.8 points per game last fall. Grantham’s arrival and a handful of junior college transfers provide the necessary pieces to generate instant defensive improvement in 2017. Road trips to Georgia, Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas are challenging, but Mississippi State is a dangerous team capable of creating havoc in the SEC West with Fitzgerald at the helm.
Florida, Georgia and Tennessee headline the top contenders in the SEC East for 2017, but the Gamecocks are the sleeper team to watch in this division. Will Muschamp guided South Carolina to a three-game improvement in the win column last fall and four victories over the final six contests. With 16 starters back, the Gamecocks should build off that momentum for 2017. Quarterback Jake Bentley is one of the nation’s top rising stars under center, and receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end Hayden Hurst headline one of college football’s best receiving corps. Muschamp’s specialty is on defense, and this unit – similar to the offense – heads into 2017 with question marks up front. The return of linebacker Skai Moore from injury is a boost for a unit that ranked ninth in the SEC against the run. With an opener against NC State in Charlotte, along with home dates against Florida and Clemson, the Gamecocks have a chance to earn a few marquee upsets and jump from 6-7 to 8-4.
Appalachian State, Troy and Arkansas State are the clear top three teams in the Sun Belt for 2017. However, after that trio is where things get cloudy in projecting how the conference will look by December. In Athlon’s projections, South Alabama is the No. 4 team, just ahead of Idaho and Louisiana. The Jaguars had an uneven 2016 campaign, defeating Mississippi State and San Diego State but only went 2-6 in league play. Coach Joey Jones’ team should take a step forward in conference action this fall, as the offense is due to improve off last year’s scoring average (25.4) with the return of quarterback Dallas Davis and running back Xavier Johnson. Addressing a line that returns only two starters and filling the voids at wide receiver are the biggest preseason question marks for this group. The Jaguars return six starters from a defense that gave up 27 points per game last fall, but this unit will receive a boost from the return of end Jimmie Gipson and tackle Tre Alford from injury. Additionally, Missouri transfer Rocel McWilliams adds to one of the Sun Belt’s top defensive lines. The secondary has a few holes to fill, especially after cornerback Jalen Thompson was ruled out for 2017 due to academics. With better luck in the health department and in close games (five losses by 10 points or less), South Alabama should emerge as the Sun Belt’s best team behind Appalachian State, Arkansas State and Troy.