The start of the college football season is less than 100 days away, and Athlon Sports is counting down the top teams for the upcoming year.
Florida State is Athlon’s pick to win the national championship, with Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide projected to finish No. 2 nationally. Of course, there's a new element to college football's regular season with the addition of a four-team playoff, and Athlon Sports is picking Ohio State to finish No. 3 and Oklahoma to finish No. 4. The debate in the preseason is no longer about No. 1 and No. 2 and instead more about the top four teams in the nation.
While there is always plenty of intrigue in filling out the top 25, Nos. 26-40 feature a handful of teams that just missed. The Nos. 41-60 range features teams like Texas Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arizona. The Nos. 61-80 projection features a few bowl teams from last season, including Syracuse, Boston College and Rutgers, along with some top teams from outside the power conferences (Northern Illinois, Ball State, Fresno State and Colorado State). The Nos. 81-100 range includes an improving South Florida team, several of Conference USA's top squads for 2014 (UTSA, RIce and North Texas), along with Wyoming under first-year coach Craig Bohl. The Nos. 101-128 completes the release of the projected 2014 rankings, with teams like New Mexico State, FIU and Idaho looking to build some positive momentum after a rough 2013 campaign.
With the completion of Athlon's college footballTop 25 for 2014, it's time to take a look at the rest of the rankings. You can view No. 26-40 here, No. 41-60 here, 61-80 here and No. 81-100 here.
Follow the top 25 on Twitter @AthlonSports and join the debate at #Athlon25. Follow Athlon's College Football Writers on Twitter: Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and David Fox (@DavidFox615).
Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2014 season
College Football 2014 Projected Rankings: 101-128
UNLV learned in the spring that it had failed to meet minimum NCAA Athletic Progress Rate (APR) score requirements of 930 and that the program would be ineligible for postseason competition in 2014, including the Mountain West Championship Game. Talk about bad timing. The Rebels, who ended a 12-year bowl drought with a 36–14 loss to North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year’s Day, hoped to be legitimate contenders in the West Division and stood a strong chance of making it to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. Instead, UNLV will have to settle for trying to put together consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1983-84.
Tulsa won a conference championship in 2012 and finished with only three victories in 2013, the lowest total since a one-win campaign in 2002. TU will try to regroup in its inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference. The defense should be improved, but there are concerns on offense, especially at quarterback. Tulsa appears headed toward a second straight losing season.
103. San Jose State
The Spartans, who will be trying for their third consecutive .500 or better record for the first time since 1989-92, will enter the season with a big chip on their shoulders after getting bypassed for a bowl game despite a 6–6 record and impressive season-ending upset of then-undefeated Fresno State. Seventeen players with starting experience return, and the schedule, outside of early non-conference road games at Auburn and Minnesota, is favorable. Three of the first four Mountain West games are at home, including two against teams — UNLV and Colorado State — that San Jose State defeated on the road a year ago. If Joe Gray or Blake Jurich emerges as a quality option at quarterback and Robinson can fix a defense that ranked 103rd nationally in points allowed (35.1 ppg), the Spartans have enough returning talent to be a factor in the West Division.
Plenty of attention has been paid to Buffalo’s heavy losses to graduation, and perhaps deservedly so, but the return of quarterback Joe Licata should be enough to carry the offense. It will be challenging to avoid a projected slide on defense, but a soft schedule in the early season should ease the growing pains. Four of the first five games are at home, including games with two FCS opponents in Duquesne and Norfolk State.
Bowling Green is clearly the team to beat in the MAC East, but the Bulls, if the defense comes through, will have a chance to be a factor once again in the division race.
105. Air Force
Troy Calhoun arrived in 2007 to rescue a program that struggled in the final years of Fisher DeBerry’s guidance. He revived the Falcons with players recruited by DeBerry, but the program has gradually regressed with players recruited by Calhoun, who has lost 14 of his last 17 games. Lack of talent and size were the glaring problems last season. The 2014 team is more experienced but still lacks the talent to thrive in the Mountain West. Calhoun needs the running attack to dominate once again. Kale Pearson runs with the speed and elusiveness of a tailback, and he’s capable of leading the Air Force offense — which ranked last in the Mountain West last season in yards per game — back to prominence.
However, for this team to flirt with a winning record, the defense — which gave up an astounding 51 touchdowns in eight Mountain West games — must show significant improvement.
106. New Mexico
Bob Davie has seen mild progress with seven wins in his first two years after taking over a program that went 3–33 in the previous three years. But he and his coaching staff know that there is a long way to go for the Lobos to compete in the upper half of the Mountain West. The offense should again be above average. The relative success of 2014 will be determined by what type of progress the defense can make.
107. Central Michigan
Central Michigan was bowl-eligible in 2013 with a 6–6 record but did not receive a postseason invite. There is considerable pressure on Dan Enos and his staff to get the Chips back among the elite in the MAC West. Enos inherited a program that went 32–7 in the MAC from 2005-09, but is 13–19 in league play in four seasons.
There are reasons for optimism: The Chips return 16 starters from a team that went 5–3 in the league. But there are also reasons for concern: Four of the five victories came against teams that either went 1–7 or 0–8 in the MAC.
Bottom line: This team is competitive but still not ready to contend in the West.
Troy’s offense kept things close last season — the Trojans lost 41–36 and 41–34 to Sun Belt co-champions UL Lafayette and Arkansas State, respectively — but the defense couldn’t get key stops in a 6–6 season. Troy’s three straight non-winning seasons are a first in revered coach Larry Blakeney’s 24-year career, and the weight of snapping that streak falls on the shoulders of untested quarterbacks. The Trojans loaded up on junior college talent to shore up the defense, but that group’s ability to mesh and finding a leader for a potentially dangerous offense remain huge questions.
Don’t expect miracles from new coach Bill Clark in his first season, but do expect improvement from Garrick McGee’s short tenure as the program’s head coach. Defensive improvement is a must, and someone needs to secure the quarterback job. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see UAB double its win total from last season, which was two, but they are probably a couple of years away from turning things completely in the right direction.
As usual, ULM has a challenging non-conference schedule with games against Wake Forest, LSU, Kentucky and Texas A&M. That makes it even tougher to get one of the Sun Belt Conference’s limited bowl slots, as its 6–6 record last season did not land a bid.
“We have got to schedule like that every year from a financial standpoint, so our players are all acclimated to those type of challenges,” coach Todd Berry says. “It can have an impact with the bowl tie-ins in our conference because of your overall record.”
ULM will have more experience than the majority of its opponents, but a lot rests on the performance of the starting quarterback, especially since Kolton Browning provided the team’s identity for so long. Berry’s teams have often overachieved, but with four new Sun Belt members it’s difficult to figure where the Warhawks should rank in the new lineup.
Jeff Monken knows the triple-option and previously coached at a major military academy, key ingredients when taking over at Army. He is very intense and demands a lot of his team. He showed his frustration during the spring when his team lost focus. “I am not happy with how physical we are playing in every phase of the game,” he said at one point.
Monken inherits a team that won only three games last year and a total of eight in the past three years. But with a soft schedule that includes two FCS opponents, there is room for improvement. Bowl-eligibility isn’t likely, but the Black Knights should be competitive with most of the teams on their schedule.
112. Louisiana Tech
It was a rough first season for Skip Holtz, and Year 2 may be a struggle as well. Four of the first five games are on the road, including trips to Oklahoma and Auburn. For Louisiana Tech to improve, the quarterback situation needs to sort itself out, and the offensive line has to provide more help for the talented running back tandem of Kenneth Dixon and Tevin King. The defense has a chance to be decent if the front four can get stronger against the run. Bowl eligibility would be a significant step forward for Holtz and the Bulldogs.
113. Texas State
This season will mark the first time in the past four years that the Bobcats will have spent back-to-back campaigns in the same conference after moving from the Southland to the WAC to the Sun Belt. Dennis Franchione has already said that this is the most FBS-ready roster he’s had at Texas State. The team will again have a backloaded schedule with plenty of tough games in the latter half of the season. The good news is that the Bobcats will play both UL Lafayette and Arkansas State — the Sun Belt co-champions in 2013 — at home.
After Texas State went 6–6 in 2013, a winning season and bowl game would be the next logical step for this program. For that to happen, though, the defense — with a rebuilt line and secondary — will have to overachieve while learning a new system.
114. Kent State
No one was quite ready for last year’s fall from grace. The 2012 season was marked by a school-record 11 victories and the first bowl game since 1972. Then coach Darrell Hazell left for Purdue, and Paul Haynes, a former Kent State player, replaced him. With a new quarterback and a new coach, KSU stumbled to a 4–8 record overall and a 3–5 mark in the MAC.
That was a collective shock to the Kent State faithful, and now comes the uncertainty about whether the program just suffered a temporary setback or whether the bad old days of the past are back.
This promises to be an interesting season around the confines of Dix Stadium. Whether it will be a successful one is far from assured.
115. Southern Miss
Perhaps the nightmare is over for Southern Miss. After setting a standard for success in Conference USA, the Golden Eagles went winless in 2012 and lost their first 11 games in 2013. The Nick Mullens-Chip Lindsey combination seems destined to improve the offense, and the return of several key players from injury should bolster the defense. There’s a rough non-conference slate, but Todd Monken should have a competitive and relatively experienced squad — as many as 14 freshmen and sophomores starting by season’s end — prepared to compete in league play.
116. Old Dominion
Since the program restarted in 2009, the Monarchs have shown that they can adapt. In their second year in the powerful CAA, they won a league title and reached the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs. In their first season as an FBS program, they knocked off Idaho and hung with bowl teams East Carolina and Pittsburgh. In five seasons, all under Bobby Wilder, the Monarchs are 46–14.
The challenge will be steeper this season as there’s only one FCS school on the schedule as opposed to the seven that the Monarchs played in 2013.
But with quarterback Taylor Heinicke as the face of the program and last season’s young talent maturing, Old Dominion appears to have what it needs to keep that steady upward trajectory in place.
As long as the Miners stay healthy at the offensive skill positions, they should score enough points to keep them in most games. That happened for the first part of last season, but they didn’t win many games because the defense was so porous.
A combination of a second year in the system and a host of experience in the back seven should lead to improvement on defense, but it will have to be dramatic for UTEP to win six games and challenge for a bowl.
After the worst two-season start (4–20) ever for a Hawaii head coach, the pressure is on for Norm Chow to show major improvement in 2014. That, however, will not be easy. The schedule is difficult — especially early with three Pac-12 opponents in the season’s first month — and there are significant personnel issues on both sides of the ball. The Rainbow Warriors appear headed toward another last-place finish.
119. Western Michigan
P.J. Fleck strolled into Kalamazoo with plenty of bravado, ignoring critics of his age and his “Row the Boat” mantra. A humbling season did nothing to slow recruiting — Rivals ranked his 2014 class No. 59 nationally, ahead of Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois — or his optimism for the future.
In the short term, Fleck sounds more realistic than a year ago, and more comfortable in his skin, aware that the odds are stacked against a team with only 29 upperclassmen, not enough of them up front on either side of the ball. “It’s a patient process, which in college football isn’t the friendliest process,” he says.
120. Miami, Ohio
Chuck Martin won two Division II national championships as the head coach at Grand Valley State and helped Notre Dame reach the BCS National Championship Game two years ago. He is used to winning. But this is a major rebuild. The RedHawks went 0–12 in 2013 and were perhaps the worst team in the nation. Quick turnarounds are possible in the MAC — see Ball State under Pete Lembo — but it’s hard to envision the RedHawks climbing too far up the league’s food chain in 2014.
After two tough years under Molnar, who was fired in the offseason, UMass is hoping Mark Whipple can turn the program around for the second time. In his first stint in Amherst (1998-2003), Whipple turned a team that was 2–9 the year before he arrived into the 1998 Division I-AA champions, which made his return popular in Amherst. He coached UMass for six years before working as an assistant in the NFL and at the University of Miami.
The task could be tougher this time as he inherits a team that won only one game in each of the last two seasons.
122. Georgia Southern
In an otherwise average 2013 season, Georgia Southern received significant attention on Nov. 23 for beating Florida, 26–20, in its first-ever victory over an FBS opponent. Though some at Georgia Southern might have seen that performance as validation for the school’s decision to move up to FBS, there are still significant challenges ahead. It will also be a new experience for Willie Fritz, who has moved up the ladder from junior colleges to Division II Central Missouri, where he went 97–47, to his wildly successful run at Sam Houston State.
Though the Eagles had a solid structure in place before making the move, there are plenty of unknowns. “Instead of slaying one dragon a year,” Fritz says, “we’ve got to do it with great consistency. We’ve got to get a lot better.”
123. Appalachian State
One of the dominant programs in the Southern Conference and on the FCS level for decades, Appalachian State is on the brink of its first season in the FBS ranks.
The Mountaineers — who matched their lowest win total since 1993 last season — will face several challenges, like depth issues stemming from the push to reach their full complement of scholarships and a lineup of new Sun Belt Conference opponents. So for a team and a fan base that’s used to success, this season could be a big adjustment.
But if things are kept in perspective, there’s reason for optimism.
While on the staff at Florida International, Scott Satterfield did win a Sun Belt title, so he understands what Appalachian State is up against. And with a team that will lean on young talent, there’s reason to believe that the Mountaineers will eventually be a force in their new league. Still, there’s a strong chance their first taste of FBS life — which begins with a trip to Michigan, site of their unforgettable 2007 upset — will have some bumpy moments.
124. Eastern Michigan
Eastern is not the type of program that can be fixed overnight by any coach, let alone one with zero experience — as a player, assistant or head coach — at the FBS level, although no experience should be required to improve upon the four wins Eastern has accumulated the past two seasons. Chris Creighton has a solid résumé, with an overall record of 139–46 as a head coach with stops at Ottawa (NAIA), Wabash (Division III) and Drake (FCS). His task at Eastern Michigan is immense. The Eagles have not had a winning season since 1995 and have been one of the worst FBS programs in the nation in recent years.
Things can’t get any worse for Idaho, right? The Vandals are coming off a 1–11 season in which they weren’t very competitive as an independent. The Sun Belt Conference once again is home, which will lower the degree of difficulty on the schedule (Florida is the only major-conference opponent). But the conference affiliation brings additional travel — the Vandals will play half of their games in the Eastern and Central time zones.
If Paul Petrino can overcome the travel and find some consistency in all phases, Idaho has a chance at making some noise in the overhauled conference. But even if the Vandals do surprise and find a way to get to six wins, they will not be spending the holidays at a bowl game. It was announced in late April that low APR scores had made the program ineligible for a postseason game in 2014.
126. Georgia State
Entering its fifth year of existence overall and second as an FBS program, Georgia State has experienced very little success, winning just once over the past two seasons. As players who were recruited for the FCS level cycle out of the program — including 27 seniors last season — the opportunity exists for Miles to upgrade the roster’s size, speed and depth. Still, the Panthers are probably two recruiting classes away from getting their numbers up to par, and in the meantime will have to rely heavily on underclassmen for production.
The Panthers were competitive at times in 2013, losing three times in conference play by a touchdown or less, but they’re still closer to the beginning than the end of a long rebuilding process.
While the natural progression of players and the return of Richard Leonard at cornerback provide hope that FIU can improve, holes in the defensive front seven and the possibility that a true freshman will start at quarterback extinguish those small bits of positivity. Games against Louisville, Pitt, Marshall and even rival FAU are likely to be embarrassingly lopsided. The Panthers have a better chance of going winless than making a bowl game.
128. New Mexico State
The Aggies are a team in transition, if for no other reason than their youth and inexperience. The program signed 23 freshmen, a number of whom will be counted on this year.
The team does have a much more manageable schedule this season, moving to the Sun Belt Conference after competing as an FBS Independent. After winning only two games in Doug Martin’s first season as head coach, there will be pressure on the Aggies to be competitive with the lower half of the new-look Sun Belt. It will be a troubling sign if New Mexico State struggles with FBS newcomers like Georgia State and Georgia Southern.