The 2016 college football season is only three weeks old. However, it’s never too early to look back at the preseason rankings and identify a few teams that have impressed or are poised to easily exceed projections. Louisville has emerged as a playoff contender after soundly defeating Florida State last week, while Nebraska, Utah, Texas A&M and Texas have each scored key wins through the first couple of games.
Note: Any team projected to finish in the top 15 by Athlon Sports this season was not considered for this article. While teams like Alabama, Houston, Washington, Michigan and Michigan State certainly fit, all were projected to finish inside of the top 15 in 2016.
15 Teams That Have Impressed Three Weeks Into the 2016 CFB Season
Arkansas/Texas A&M (3-0)
Pencil in the winner of Saturday’s game here. Alabama is the class of the SEC West once again, but Arkansas or Texas A&M could sneak into the discussion for the second or third spot by the end of the year. The Razorbacks continue to trend up under coach Bret Bielema’s watch and already have a solid non-conference win (at TCU) under their belt. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin entered the year on the hot seat, but the Aggies seem to be moving in the right direction. Veteran play-caller Noel Mazzone has provided direction for the offense, while senior transfer Trevor Knight is a steady option under center. The defense has emerged as one of the best in the SEC, and Texas A&M has two solid wins under its belt (UCLA and at Auburn).
Army West Point (3-0)
Thanks to last week’s 66-14 victory over UTEP, Army West Point is 3-0 for the first time since 1996. The Black Knights have made marked improvement under coach Jeff Monken and are poised to earn the program’s first bowl bid since 2010. The formula for success on offense hasn’t changed for Monken, as Army West Point ranks second nationally in rushing and has yet to give away a turnover. However, the defense has been solid too, limiting the first three opponents to 13.7 points per contest. The schedule will get tougher the rest of the way, but eight wins isn’t out of the question.
Central Michigan (3-0)
The balance of power in the MAC clearly resides with the West Division in 2016. The Chippewas were picked fourth by most outlets this preseason, but there wasn’t much separation among the top four teams. After three weeks of the 2016 season, Central Michigan has to be mentioned in the same discussion as Toledo or Western Michigan for the top overall team in the MAC. The Chippewas had some luck in their win over Oklahoma State, but thanks to a high-powered offense and quarterback Cooper Rush, have also notched two blowout victories (Presbyterian and UNLV).
Mike MacIntyre inherited a program in need of major repair in 2013, and the Buffaloes have made some progress under his watch. However, even though the on-field product was better, improvement in the win column has been tough to come by. Three games into the 2016 season and it looks like MacIntyre has his best team during his four-year stint in Boulder. Colorado soundly defeated rival Colorado State in the opener, followed by an easy 56-7 victory over Idaho State in Week 2. The Buffaloes jumped out to an early lead against Michigan but lost 45-28. The schedule the rest of the way isn’t easy. However, judging by the first three weeks, Colorado’s improving offense and solid defense could be enough to help this team escape the bottom of the Pac-12 South and push for six wins.
Georgia Tech (3-0)
The Yellow Jackets have a huge opportunity to increase their early-season rise in Week 4 with Clemson visiting Bobby Dodd Stadium on Thursday night. Georgia Tech has won five in a row over the Tigers in Atlanta. Regardless of how Thursday’s game turns out, the Yellow Jackets seem to be back on track after a disappointing 3-9 record in 2015. Coach Paul Johnson’s team has already matched last season’s win total and has allowed only 31 points through three games. The overall strength of schedule gets tougher starting on Thursday night, but the Yellow Jackets won’t be an easy out for the rest of the Coastal Division the rest of the way.
The Cardinals have easily been one of the most impressive teams in the nation through three weeks. While Louisville was projected as a top 25 team this preseason, Bobby Petrino’s program looks poised to exceed those expectations. The Cardinals are a legitimate playoff contender after demolishing Florida State last Saturday and could take another step forward to winning the Atlantic Division by defeating Clemson on Oct. 1. Quarterback Lamar Jackson has been the nation’s best player so far in 2016.
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The hire of D.J. Durkin already looks like a home run for the Terrapins. Defeating Howard, FIU and UCF was expected in the preseason, but Maryland also looks like a better team on both sides of the ball. The Terrapins had a minus-18 turnover margin last season, yet have zero giveaways after three games. The offense has showed marked improvement under coordinator Walt Bell’s direction (41 ppg), while the defense is allowing only 4.9 yards per play. Those totals will regress slightly in Big Ten play, but Maryland has a good shot at six wins with matchups remaining against Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota and Rutgers.
The level of competition is going to get tougher, but there’s a lot to like about Miami’s start so far this season. The Hurricanes dismantled Florida A&M and FAU by a combined score of 108-13 and won 45-10 over a good Appalachian State team. But the scoreboard isn’t the only place to like what Miami has done through three weeks. The defense is limiting opponents to just 7.7 points a game and is tied for fifth nationally with 13 sacks. Quarterback Brad Kaaya (7 TDs, 3 INTs) is off to a good start, and the rushing attack is headlined by rising star Mark Walton (8.4 ypc). After three blowout wins, the focus shifts to ACC play with a trip to Georgia Tech on Oct. 1, followed by matchups against Florida State and North Carolina. Is Miami finally ready to win the Coastal in coach Mark Richt’s first year?
It’s only one game, but Saturday’s win over Oregon was huge for coach Mike Riley and the overall direction of the program. The Cornhuskers struggled to win close contests last year, but Nebraska found a way to knock off the Ducks in Week 3. Riley's team still has its share of personnel concerns, as its defense is giving up 166 rushing yards per game and quarterback Tommy Armstrong needs to continue to take care of the ball. However, the Cornhuskers have a favorable upcoming schedule – at Northwestern, Illinois, at Indiana and Purdue – before a key stretch of games. If Armstrong takes care of the ball and the defense improves, Nebraska could challenge for the Big Ten West title.
San Diego State (3-0)
Houston is the clear favorite to represent the Group of 5 conferences in a New Year’s Six Bowl (or playoff), but there’s a lot of football left in 2016. With that in mind, San Diego State continues to quietly impress. The Aztecs have won 13 consecutive games and is ranked No. 22 in the latest Associated Press poll. The formula for success hasn’t changed for coach Rocky Long. Led by standout senior running back Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State’s offense leans heavily on the ground, while a suffocating defense is headlined by cornerback Damontae Kazee and linebacker Calvin Munson. Could the Aztecs be undefeated headed into the Mountain West Championship Game? It’s a strong possibility.
Texas’ early-season momentum was slowed a bit after Saturday’s loss to California. However, coach Charlie Strong appears to have found the right answers on offense. New coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and freshman quarterback Shane Buechele have provided a much-needed spark to an attack that managed only 26.4 points a game in 2015. With the offense on track, Strong has to turn his attention to the defense. Texas was shredded by California for 50 points and 6.3 yards per play in the 50-43 loss and is allowing 34.7 points per game through the first three weeks of the season. Assuming the offense continues to progress and improvement is found on defense, the Longhorns could challenge for a finish among the Big 12’s top three this season.
UCLA and USC were considered the preseason favorites by most for the Pac-12 South Division, but the Trojans are clearly in disarray and the Bruins could be 2-2 after a matchup against Stanford this Saturday. UCLA is in much better shape to rebound for the South Division title than USC, but don’t overlook Kyle Whittingham’s team. The Utes are quietly 3-0 and boast one of the Pac-12’s top defenses (12 ppg). While defense is usually Utah’s strength, the offense is starting to click after scoring a season high of 34 points against San Jose State. New quarterback Troy Williams has connected on seven passes of 30 or more yards, which is nearly as many as last year’s starter Travis Wilson (11) had in 12 games. Additionally, the Utes have two promising options at running back in Zack Moss and Armand Shyne to team with Troy McCormick.
Western Michigan (3-0)
P.J. Fleck’s team was Athlon’s pick to win the MAC this preseason, and the Broncos have certainly played up to that level (and even better) through the first weeks of 2016. Western Michigan scored road victories over Northwestern and Illinois and easily handled North Carolina Central in Week 2. The next three weeks won’t be easy with matchups against Georgia Southern, Central Michigan and Northern Illinois upcoming. However, the Broncos could certainly win all three, which would position Western Michigan to enter mid-October with an undefeated record.
Wisconsin’s victory over LSU was one of the biggest surprises from Week 1. The Badgers were a double-digit underdog against the Tigers but used a solid defensive effort and timely offense to score the upset. It’s no secret Wisconsin’s schedule is one of the toughest in the nation this year and features a brutal upcoming three-game stretch (at Michigan State, at Michigan and Ohio State). However, even if the Badgers fall short in those three games, Iowa and Nebraska have enough flaws to keep coach Paul Chryst’s team in the hunt for the West Division title. The defense hasn’t missed a beat under new coordinator Justin Wilcox, and quarterbacks Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook have combined to complete 64.8 percent of their throws. And of course, the Badgers are strong on the offensive line and with a ground attack headlined by Corey Clement.
Related: Post-Week 3 Top 25 Rankings
Craig Bohl was an outstanding hire for Wyoming prior to the 2014 season. The Cowboys navigated a 6-18 record in Bohl’s first two years, but the rebuilding plan appears to be on track. Wyoming upset Northern Illinois in the opener, gave Nebraska all it could handle for a half and defeated UC Davis last week. With a win over Eastern Michigan this Friday, the Cowboys would be 3-1 and positioned to push for the program’s first bowl trip since 2011.