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 No. 41-60 range features teams like Texas Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arizona. The No. 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).
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 hereand No. 41-60 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: 61-80
With numerous returners on each side of the ball and the momentum from the Texas Bowl win over Minnesota, Syracuse is poised to take another step in 2014. Yet the talent gap between the Orange and ACC Atlantic Division members Florida State and Clemson remains huge. Every other game will be a crapshoot, and another upper-division finish and bowl are attainable.
62. Fresno State
Tim DeRuyter has enjoyed a pretty good run: two seasons and two MWC titles. But the job’s about to get a lot tougher, breaking in a new quarterback against a brutal early schedule.
After tangling with USC, Utah and Nebraska, it’s possible Fresno State will be 1–3 for the conference opener. Yet there’s enough talent to hang another championship banner. It may depend on whether the Bulldogs are steeled by those early games — or battered by them.
Arkansas should be improved on both sides of the ball, but that doesn’t mean another winless SEC season is out of the question for the Razorbacks, who are still trying to stabilize and upgrade their roster after the disruption of the Bobby Petrino affair. Qualifying for a bowl berth would be a significant step in Year 2 under Bret Bielema, as Arkansas chugs forward with a difficult rebuild.
64. Boston College
Steve Addazio was responsible for one of the more underrated coaching jobs last year, boosting Boston College from two to seven wins in his debut season by packaging a power-run attack around Andre Williams. Addazio’s creativity could be tested even more in 2014 since nearly all of the Eagles’ all-conference performers from a year ago are gone. Boston College is counting on the young players left over from the Frank Spaziani era and Addazio’s first two recruiting classes to form the Eagles’ identity.
The running game and solid line play will always be Boston College staples, but how will the Eagles stretch the field? They’ll need at least one or two young wide receivers to grow up in a hurry. The defense has a chance to improve after last year’s unit under coordinator Don Brown was opportunistic but not overwhelming in any one area.
A return to a bowl game is a realistic expectation, but the Eagles aren’t likely to pose much of a threat to the top teams in the ACC Atlantic Division.
65. NC State
Little went right for Dave Doeren in his first season. The Wolfpack lost their final eight games and went winless in ACC play for the first time since 1959. But with Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett at quarterback and a staggering 51 new true or redshirt freshmen on the roster, Doeren’s hoping the only way to go is up. With a manageable schedule, especially out of the league, there might be a way to speed up the rebuilding process and get back to a bowl game.
After such a poor finish in 2013, the Wolfpack do have motivation on their side.
“We want to make people forget last year," Bryan Underwood says. “This is us now, we’re a new team.”
66. Iowa State
Iowa State must improve significantly on both sides of the ball if it hopes to bounce back from last season’s disappointing three-win season. With Mark Mangino on the staff, there is legitimate hope for better production on offense. There are some nice pieces at the skill positions for the former Kansas head coach to work with. Defensively, however, there are major issues. The staff will be relying on several junior college transfers — always a dangerous proposition. If the Cyclones want to reach a bowl game in 2014, they will have to do it by simply outscoring the opposition.
67. West Virginia
It may be summer in Morgantown, but the heat has been on Dana Holgorsen for a couple of seasons. In 2012, the Mountaineers went 2–6 after a 5–0 start that included a win at Texas. Last year, WVU finished 4–8 and out of the bowl picture. Athletic director Oliver Luck felt compelled to issue a statement after the latter “difficult and trying” season and backed the coach, if seemingly only for this season, adding he has “high expectations” for 2014. The problem for Holgorsen is that the Mountaineers might be better, but that might not translate into a sterling record. WVU opens with Alabama, visits Maryland and plays a full Big 12 schedule.
The third year has usually been the charm for Illinois head coaches. Mike White, John Mackovic, Lou Tepper, Ron Turner and Ron Zook all reached bowls in their third seasons. Now, it’s Tim Beckman’s turn to try to keep the streak going. While the school hasn’t issued an ultimatum, a bowl bid would help secure Beckman’s future. The non-conference schedule is set up for success, with winnable home games against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State. Take those three, and the Illini are halfway to a postseason berth.
The offense should continue to pile up yards and points, and the defense can’t be much worse. If Tim Banks’ guys climb 20 spots or so in national defensive rankings, it will translate to more wins. Beckman’s short-term goal is to solidify his position as head coach. Competing for a division title is down the road.
There’s a lot to like about Houston, which has acquitted itself well in the call-up from C-USA to the American. This year’s schedule is manageable, and at least eight wins should be the expectation. Houston is a proud place — two of the country’s most established coaches, Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin, were roaming UH sidelines not too long ago. This team always seems to thrive off quarterback play, so the question is whether O’Korn has peaked or is just lifting off. The latter appears to be the case. Playmaking is there on both sides of the ball. Houston should be in the conversation as preseason American favorites along with Cincinnati, East Carolina and UCF.
Mark Stoops has done the impossible — keep fans and recruits excited after a 2–10 debut season. He signed a top-25 class and had 35,000 people show up for this year’s spring game, second-most in program history. Now he just needs to win. Although he posted exactly the same record that got Joker Phillips fired a year earlier, the Cats were more competitive in 2013, losing five games by two touchdowns or less and three by single digits. The big payoff is probably still a year away, but a four- or five-win season this fall would probably keep everyone happy.
The depth and talent are improving in Boulder under Mike MacIntyre. But the program is still in rebuilding mode. The Buffaloes have won a combined four Pac-12 games in their three seasons in the league, including one win in each of the past two years. Last season, the Buffs’ average margin of defeat in their eight conference losses was 29 points. More wins would be nice, but simply being competitive on a consistent basis would show progress in the short term.
For these keeping track, and everyone is, Virginia’s 2–10 finish last year represented its fewest wins since 1982. The Cavaliers were winless in the ACC for the first time since 1981.
Mike London won’t survive another campaign like that. He might not even make it to midseason. With a maturing roster and the continuity that comes with a second season in offensive and defensive systems installed last year, Virginia should be better. The question, given a challenging schedule and a culture of coming up short, is how much that improvement will be reflected in the bottom line.
Rutgers welcomes back a solid group of returning starters, but there is uncertainty at the all-important quarterback position, and the schedule is the most difficult in school history. The defense, torched by teams from the American Athletic Conference in 2013, must show significant improvement. There is a chance Rutgers will be better in 2014 but fail to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2010 and only the second time since ’04.
74. Colorado State
The Rams lost some significant star power with running back Kapri Bibbs’ decision to forego his final two seasons to turn pro and the graduations of Weston Richburg, Shaquil Barrett and All-MW tight end Crockett Gillmore. But they’ve still got a lot to work with in Garrett Grayson and a talented corps of receivers, including three who redshirted last fall. They’ll have to develop enough of a running threat to keep defenses honest but should be able to move the ball effectively through the air. The secondary has to improve for the Rams to be a factor in the pass-happy MW.
A favorable schedule that does not include MW West Division powers Fresno State and San Diego State gives the Rams a legitimate chance to make back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 2002-03, when Sonny Lubick was the coach.
Toledo has 17 starters back to work on purging the sour taste left from last season, when the Rockets went 7–5 overall and missed playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2009. The schedule is not easy; the Rockets play Missouri, Cincinnati and Iowa State in non-conference action and host Bowling Green, the defending league champs, from the MAC East.
Toledo has a wealth of experience and talent along its offensive front and at linebacker, but the Rockets will be featuring a new starter at quarterback — always a dangerous proposition. If Logan Woodside emerges as viable playmaker and the defense improves, the Rockets should be right back in the MAC East title picture.
The Golden Bears are starting from an unfamiliar place — the bottom. Sonny Dykes’ debut season in Berkeley was a disaster in every way, and the new regime still is looking for its first victory over an FBS team. The Bears should be deeper and more experienced, and Dykes saw a new resolve during spring ball.
“That’s been the most impressive thing, their mentality,” Dykes says. “They’ve moved on.” Adds running back Khalfani Muhammad: “A season like that, it hurts. It hurt every game. It’s a new year. We all come in here with a lot of confidence.”
Still, there are more questions than answers, and victories are hard to find on a schedule featuring the steadily improving Pac-12 and non-conference games against Northwestern and BYU. How much improvement shows in the standings remains to be seen.
Acknowledged Dykes: “We’re a work in progress.”
77. Northern Illinois
After the best two-year run in school history, Northern Illinois faces a daunting task trying to maintain its level of excellence. There should be some early-season growing pains without Jordan Lynch’s leadership and big-time production spearheading the offense. Following the season opener, the Huskies hit the road to play at Northwestern, UNLV and Arkansas.
Although NIU is loaded at several offensive positions, most notably at tailback, offensive line and wide receiver, Lynch is tough to replace. Rod Carey is emphasizing the importance of finishing strong, with the Huskies losing their last two games last season and not winning a bowl game in the last two years. Even without Lynch, the Huskies return enough talent to contend in the tough MAC West.
During his first two years at KU, Weis was careful to not set specific win total goals for his rebuilding football team. That’s changed this season, as he enters Year 3 with the most talent he’s had and a solid base of upperclassmen.
“Before you can be a perennial winning program, the first thing you’ve got to do is get to .500,” Charlie Weis says.
Though this probably isn’t a “bowl or bust” season for the Jayhawks, Weis likely will need to improve his win total to avoid the hot seat in the third year of a five-year contract.
79. Ball State
Northern Illinois is the standard-bearer in the MAC West, but nobody in the division has played the Huskies tougher than Ball State. While the Cardinals might not improve their win total for the fourth time in Pete Lembo’s four years at the helm, they appear positioned to stay in the MAC’s elite for years to come.
Most Purdue fans realized Darrell Hazell was inheriting a rebuilding situation, but last season still ended up being a nightmare. The lone victory was over FCS foe Indiana State, and the season ended with the Boilermakers getting thumped by archrival Indiana.
The non-conference schedule is more forgiving this year, and Purdue gets a break in conference play. It doesn’t play Michigan or Ohio State. Wisconsin and defending Big Ten champion Michigan State visit Ross-Ade Stadium. Still, it’s hard to envision this team making a move in the Big Ten in 2014. The talent level simply isn’t good enough at this point.