Wake Forest could be one of the ACC's most-improved teams.
The start of the 2013 college football season is still a few months away. However, Athlon Sports is already counting down the teams for the upcoming year.
Alabama is Athlon’s pick to win the national championship, with Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes expected to finish No. 2 nationally.
While there is always plenty of intrigue in filling out the top 25, No. 26-40 features a handful of teams that just missed. And 41-60 showcases plenty of teams fighting to move up college football's food chain or improve after a disappointing season.
But it's a different story in the No. 61-80 range.
Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia all make an appearance in this range, as all three look to improve off disappointing 2012 seasons. For other teams - San Jose State, San Diego State and UL Lafayette - climbing this high in 2013 rankings shows all three could be among the top non-BCS teams in college football for this season.
Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2013 season
College Football 2013 Team Rankings: 61-80
They haven’t won a Big Ten title in 46 years, haven’t been to the Rose Bowl in more than half a century. Yet Minnesota’s long-suffering fans fervently believe that history is finally on their side. Not their own history. Their coach’s.
Jerry Kill’s records during his first three seasons at Southern Illinois were 1–10, 4–8 and 10–2, the latter commencing a streak of seven straight I-AA playoff appearances. Kill’s records during his three seasons at Northern Illinois were 6–7, 7–6 and 10–3, and he left behind the nucleus of a team that reached the Orange Bowl last January.
Kill has the Gophers on a similar trajectory so far, going 3–9 and 6–7 his first two seasons. The Gophers were noticeably improved last year, particularly on defense, and though they remain overmatched against the Big Ten’s elite, they still managed to qualify for a minor bowl game. So after two seasons of what he describes as “baby steps,” can Kill take a giant leap forward once again?
“You’ve got to have high expectations,” says Tracy Claeys, Kill’s defensive coordinator at every stop.
2013 Minnesota Golden Gophers Team Preview
A six-game losing streak and 4–8 finish sapped the momentum coach Mike London had built over the previous two years. The overhaul of his staff smacked, if not of desperation, then clearly of a need for stronger direction and identity.
London has recruited well but has been criticized for his game management and lack of a consistent vision. His new hires have a combined 135 years of coaching experience. It feels a bit like a new start. Entering his fourth year, it’s probably the last one London will get.
2013 Virginia Cavaliers Team Preview
63. San Jose State
Ron Caragher has some big shoes to fill, taking over a Spartans squad that went 11–2 under Mike MacIntyre, who then bolted for Colorado. The 11 wins were the most by a San Jose State football team since 1940.
Still, with a top-notch quarterback in David Fales, an outstanding group of wide receivers and key returnees at several other spots, the Spartans figure to be very competitive in their first year in the Mountain West. The schedule, which features non-conference games against Pac-12 heavyweight Stanford, Navy and a road date at improving Minnesota of the Big Ten, is a tough one. One break for the Spartans is that they skip Boise State in conference play.
2013 San Jose State Spartans Team Preview
64. San Diego State
San Diego State has appeared in three consecutive bowl games for the first time in its history. And with the school finally deciding to remain in the Mountain West and rather than depart for the Big East, the opportunity is there for the program to position itself as the second-best program in the conference behind Boise State. Winning a share of the Mountain West crown last season earned coach Rocky Long a two-year contract extension through the 2017 season, and the belief is that bowl bids will continue to be the norm.
The Aztecs will again have a strong defense this season and one of the top running backs in the West in Adam Muema. If Adam Dingwell can again avoid mistakes, and one or two receivers can emerge as a consistent threat, San Diego State will again battle for the conference crown. Regardless, a fourth straight bowl appearance would seem to be well within reach.
2013 San Diego State Aztecs Team Preview
Mark Stoops has made all the right moves. He’s reinvigorated the fan base (season ticket sales are way up), signed the program’s highest-rated recruiting class in at least a dozen years, vowed to fix the defense and installed a (theoretically) high-powered offense. But he knows the roster, which got the last guy fired, leaves a lot to be desired. There’s also the matter of the schedule, which at one point features Louisville, Florida, at South Carolina, Alabama all in a row. Anything above five wins would constitute magic.
2013 Kentucky Wildcats Team Preview
66. UL Lafayette
The Cajuns led the Sun Belt in scoring last season (35.5 ppg) and could be even better offensively this year. They will need to be, since ULL’s defense ranged from mediocre to bad in 2012. Coach Mark Hudspeth is confident that the new scheme will solve some of his team’s defensive issues. Still, it’s clear that the Cajuns will have to score a bunch of points to win games this season — something they are more than capable of doing. The school’s first Sun Belt title since 2005 is well within reach.
2013 UL Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns Team Preview
Navy has displayed remarkable consistency over the last decade, posting winning records in nine of 10 seasons and capturing the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy eight times during that span. However, such sustained success has not come easy — the Midshipmen played in 56 games that were decided by eight points or less from 2002-12.
Navy owns a 32–24 record in such games during that span, which is a major reason why it played in nine bowl games during the most successful period in program history. That ability to win the close ones will be key again this season against a rigorous schedule that features seven schools that went to bowl games in 2012.
Navy has an agreement to appear in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas if it posts a winning record.
2013 Navy Midshipmen Team Preview
68. Washington State
Leach arrived in Pullman last year with warranted fanfare. The new Washington State coach had led Texas Tech to 10 bowl games. But Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense sputtered.
The season was marked with big losses and a controversy involving WSU’s all-time leading receiver, Marquess Wilson, who left the team in November after claiming verbal, mental and physical abuse by the coaching staff. That prompted Washington State and Pac-12 investigations, which cleared the staff of any wrongdoing.
Most Cougar fans support Leach’s disciplined approach, believing that a culture change was necessary after Washington State went 9–40 during the previous four seasons under Paul Wulff.
From all indications, players know what to expect from Leach now. They’re all on board, pulling in the same direction. That is a good start, but the Cougars still have work to do. They should be improved, but it would be a bit of a surprise if they flirted with a .500 record.
2013 Washington State Cougars Team Preview
Kirk Ferentz enters his 15th season as the Iowa coach with his once-proud legacy now hanging in the balance. The Hawkeyes closed the 2012 season with six consecutive defeats en route to a 4–8 record, their worst since 2000.
While there are some bright spots — the running game should be solid and there is decent talent on the defense — it’s tough to envision a big turnaround in 2013. With questions at quarterback and receiver, and a much tougher schedule — Ohio State and Wisconsin replace Indiana and Penn State — the Hawkeyes appear headed toward a second straight losing season.
2013 Iowa Hawkeyes Team Preview
70. Wake Forest
This is a crucial season for the program. Coach Jim Grobe hasn’t had a winning record since the 2006-08 bowl streak, and last year was filled with problems, including uncharacteristic off-the-field issues. This year’s team fits Grobe’s formula, though, relying on at least 14 seniors to play key roles. He loves the redshirt freshmen challenging for spots and admits that a better attitude surrounds the program. “You can sense that there’s a lot of guys who like to play football,” he says. “That’s maybe something we’ve missed for a little while. We haven’t quite had that spark that makes you feel that everybody’s loving it.”
2013 Wake Forest Team Preview
71. South Florida
“Do something.’’ It’s the mantra of coach Willie Taggart — and it’s appropriate for a South Florida program that hasn’t done nearly enough in recent seasons. The Bulls, picked for second place in last season’s Big East poll, were 3–9 and 1–6 in the league. Skip Holtz was fired after losing 14 of his last 16 conference games.
The Bulls, in the retooled American Athletic Conference, just need to do something, as Taggart might say. The recruiting and energy level already have picked up considerably. A winning record and a bowl-game appearance — not seen at South Florida since 2010 — are achievable steps in the right direction.
2013 South Florida Team Preview
This looks like a team that can win the reconfigured and depleted Conference USA. Quarterback Rakeem Cato has a shot to be the league’s best player again, and the offense should be able to put up big points if the outside receivers can be productive and stretch defenses away from receiver Tommy Shuler and tight end Gator Hoskins.
Defensively, the unit is more experienced and has a new coordinator, so there is at least hope it can hold up its end of the bargain one year after surrendering over 50 points five times.
With UCF off to the Big East and the game with East Carolina at home, the East Division title is certainly within reach for the Herd.
2013 Marshall Thundering Herd Team Preview
The good news is that the 2012 Duke season was not a flash in the pan. If anything, the 2013 team has more experience and more talent across the board. But there are still issues that need to be addressed — run defense, anyone? — and there is the fact that the rest of the ACC has improved right alongside the Blue Devils.
Duke is certainly capable of running the table with its non-conference schedule, and there are several winnable ACC games out there — Pittsburgh at home on Sept. 21 comes to mind — but Duke doesn’t have much margin for error if it wants to reach a bowl game for the second straight season.
2013 Duke Blue Devils Team Preview
74. Ball State
For the first time in school history, Ball State knocked off back-to-back BCS conference foes (Indiana and South Florida) last year. That’s a sign of where the Cardinals are headed. If the defense takes a step forward and the new specialists hold their own, Ball State will challenge for MAC West supremacy.
2013 Ball State Cardinals Team Preview
With Doug Marrone guiding the 2012 team to a 6–1 finish, the stage was set for a smooth transition to the ACC. Marrone’s departure clouded the optimism. That noted, new coach Scott Shafer was part of Marrone’s staff and understands the program and personnel well. He knows the onus will shift from the offense to defense and special teams this season. The ability of those units to offset the inexperience on offense holds the key to SU’s season.
2013 Syracuse Orange Team Preview
A new regime makes Nevada tough to predict. The offense should still be formidable, and the Wolf Pack’s porous defense could be improved. But with a brutal road schedule that includes trips to UCLA, Florida State, Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State, even a modest defensive improvement might not be enough for the Wolf Pack to return to a bowl for a ninth consecutive season.
2013 Nevada Wolf Pack Team Preview
77. East Carolina
Quarterback Shane Carden seems primed for another big year in coordinator Lincoln Riley’s spread offense. Receiver Justin Hardy is a dynamic, game-changing player, and NFL scouts are drooling over Justin Jones, who could bust out big this season.
The question marks are on defense, where new coordinator Rick Smith begins his second tour of duty at East Carolina. He was the school’s defensive backs coach from 2005-09 and has 32 years of experience. If he can shore up the pass defense, East Carolina will be in position to earn its seventh bowl bid in the last eight years and contend for the Conference USA East Division title.
2013 East Carolina Pirates Team Preview
Coach Darrell Hazell and his staff weren’t left with an abundance of talent, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The non-conference schedule is difficult with home games against Notre Dame and Northern Illinois in addition to the trip to Cincinnati. We’ll get an idea if Purdue has a chance to be any kind of factor in the Big Ten when it plays its conference opener at Wisconsin on Sept. 21. A winning record equals a successful season. Make that very successful.
2013 Purdue Boilermakers Team Preview
Toledo has a 26–13 record overall and 20–4 mark in the MAC over the past three seasons with three straight bowl appearances. The only thing missing is a conference title, something this program has not won since 2004.
The offense is loaded, with four all-conference players back, plus a veteran quarterback in Terrance Owens. The Rockets, however, might have to overwhelm the opposition to reach a championship. The strength of the defense remains in doubt, following the loss of Dan Molls, the nation’s leading tackler in 2012, and eight other starters.
Second-year coach Matt Campbell contends he has the talent on hand to finally conquer the MAC West Division, but his defense will need to show up early and often for that to happen.
2013 Toledo Rockets Team Preview
80. UL Monroe
Injuries to arguably ULM’s top six players derailed last season’s Sun Belt title hopes. The Warhawks still played in their first FBS bowl, but that ended with a surprisingly lopsided 45–14 loss to Ohio in the Independence Bowl.
This season represents the best shot at a conference crown for coach Todd Berry and quarterback Kolton Browning, who guided the program to its best season in two decades of FBS competition in 2012.
“I think this group is hungry. They are not arrogant, but there is a little more swagger than before,” says Berry, who received a new four-year contract in the offseason. “We had to get through some injuries, and we did not end last year like we wanted. So our team doesn’t like how people are talking about them. But those injuries forced other guys to play a lot, and that’s led us to where we are now.”
The Warhawks have pivotal home conference games against Western Kentucky and Arkansas State, both bowl teams a year ago, and a season-ending trip to rival UL Lafayette that could have conference title implications.
2013 ULM Warhawks Team Preview
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