The 2015 college football season is still a few months away, but it’s never too early to project how the upcoming year will play out on the field. Athlon Sports has released its top 25 for this season and continues the countdown to September with a look at the teams ranked No. 26-128.
The 61-80 rankings release features more teams from the Power 5 leagues, as well as some predicted champions from the Group of 5 conferences. WKU leads the way in C-USA teams at No. 69, while Marshall is one spot behind at No. 70. Toledo also ranks No. 75 as the first MAC team in the 128 rankings.
Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2015 season
College Football's 2015 Projected Rankings: No. 61-80
Coach Mike London is no stranger to the hot seat. He’s been under a cloud for three seasons. Last year’s improvement from 2–10 to 5–7 was encouraging to a point. But a second-half fade after a 4–2 start raised old questions about the team’s inability to finish close games under London.
Last year’s progress earned London a last chance. Nothing short of a bowl game appearance is likely to keep him around. With the usual questions on offense and big shoes to fill on defense — as well as another brutal non-conference schedule — Virginia has a lot to overcome for that to happen. Too much, probably.
Temple went from two wins in 2013 to six a year ago. There is reason to believe they can at least get back to a bowl game for the first time in four seasons, and a run at the American Athletic Conference East Division crown is not out of the question. To take that next step, the offense must produce as it did in Matt Rhule’s debut season of 2013, and Temple must find what it takes to win more close games against better opponents.
Despite losing key players who helped the program clinch a share of its second consecutive American title in 2014, coach George O’Leary emphasizes that it’s a reload, not a rebuild. It’s hard to argue with O’Leary, who has averaged 9.4 wins over the past five seasons. Though there are question marks at certain positions, there’s an expectation that UCF has the talent to again be a contender for the conference title.
It is a simple question with a complicated answer: What does Tim Beckman need to do to continue as Illinois football coach? The coach enters his fourth season with a 12–25 overall record and a 4–20 mark in the Big Ten. No doubt the team has improved during Beckman’s tenure. But the bar was set low with a 2–10 mark his first year. The Illini won four in 2013 and six in 2014. The fans demand more.
The schedule doesn’t help. The Illini travel to North Carolina and Iowa, while hosting Big Ten powerhouses Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Another bowl bid is doable, and six wins should keep Beckman at the school for at least another season.
No one expected life in the Big Ten to be easy for Rutgers, and losses to Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State by a combined 180–44 score showed that the Scarlet Knights have a long way to go before they can compete with the cream of the conference crop. Rutgers’ quest to reach a bowl game for the 10th time in 11 years will depend on whether coach Kyle Flood can find enough offense to compensate for a young defensive corps that figures to struggle against elite Big Ten competition once again.
66. Washington State
After making their first bowl game in a decade in 2013, the Cougars backslid last season. Experience and depth are still issues, but the hope in Pullman is that the coaching changes combined with an infusion of junior college talent will help this team get back to the postseason.
Colorado won only two games in coach Mike MacIntyre’s second season and went winless in conference play for the first time in 99 years. Despite those harsh realities, there were tangible signs that the program is finally on the right track and in position to become more competitive in the Pac-12. Four of the Buffaloes’ nine league losses came by five points or fewer, including double-overtime losses to Cal and UCLA. The goal in Year 3 is to turn some of those close losses into wins and make a move out of the Pac-12 South basement.
68. San Diego State
San Diego State has gone to five consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history and has been steady but not spectacular in four seasons under coach Rocky Long’s leadership. The seven victories in 2014 were the Aztecs’ fewest since 2009 (under Brady Hoke), and there is now an expectation of a winning season and bowl game appearance every year.
If Maxwell Smith can avoid the injuries that hindered him at Kentucky and can provide the downfield passing attack San Diego State lacked last season, the Aztecs will be a solid threat to reach the Mountain West title game. The defense is strong enough for San Diego State to win the division crown, and there is enough overall talent for the Aztecs to set winning the conference championship as a legitimate goal.
Few programs have transitioned to the FBS level as well as WKU, which is just six years into its move up from FCS. Of 27 teams to make the jump since 1987, only eight reached a second bowl game during a six-year window. Eight of 20 head coaching openings in the country last year were filled by first-time head coaches, and Jeff Brohm was the only one of the eight to win a bowl game.
With all the offensive weapons returning, especially quarterback Brandon Doughty and running back Leon Allen, the Hilltoppers will continue to score points. If the defense can at least start to slow teams down, WKU is poised to make that next jump to becoming a consistent Conference USA challenger.
Running back Devon Johnson’s return and a bevy of talented receivers help ease the pressure on new quarterback Michael Birdsong for an offense that has eclipsed 500 yards per game on average for each of the last three seasons. If the defense provides anything this season, the Herd — who face another soft schedule — should be in contention for a Conference USA Championship and potential New Year’s Six bowl berth.
71. Colorado State
It will be hard to match the success the Rams had last season, when they won nine games in a row and posted only the fifth 10-win season in school history. There’s bound to be a drop-off as they learn new schemes and replace key players. Jim McElwain left the program in good shape, though, with solid depth at most positions and some talented players who are ready to step into starring roles. A third consecutive bowl appearance is well within reach.
72. East Carolina
Ruffin McNeill, on a cane all spring after hip surgery, can stand tall with what he has done in Greenville at his alma mater. The Pirates were 5–3 in their first year in the American Athletic Conference and went to their fourth bowl in McNeill’s five seasons. He graduated the leading passer (Shane Carden) in school history and the FBS’s all-time receptions leader (Justin Hardy), but he had a 105-man roster out in spring, certainly a sign of a healthy program. If his young quarterback comes through, it looks like he has another bowl team to lean on.
73. Oregon State
Oregon State has been trumpeting the “new era” motto, and for good reason. After former coach Mike Riley pulled off arguably the biggest stunner of the coaching carousel by bolting for Nebraska, Oregon State’s luring Gary Andersen away from Wisconsin was almost as shocking. Andersen rebuilt Utah State in a short time and has hired a top-notch staff to help him do the same in Corvallis. But with so much youth at quarterback, plus a slew of holes to fill on a defense that will consistently match up against some of the nation’s most potent offenses, can Oregon State expect to contend for a bowl game in a loaded Pac-12? The Beavers are likely still at least a year away from making serious progress in the win/loss column.
74. Iowa State
There is significant pressure on Paul Rhoads, whose program has won a total of five games in the past two years, to show significant improvement this season. First and foremost, for that to happen, the Cyclones have to stay healthy. After that, the offense needs to be more explosive and efficient. The defense should be improved, but not enough to consistently slow down quality Big 12 offenses. Getting to six wins — and reaching bowl-eligibility — will be a challenge for the 2014 Cyclones.
Toledo has the luxury of playing seven home games in 2015, and the Rockets return of plenty of playmakers on defense and some extremely talented individuals at running back and receiver. But all of the optimism has to be tempered by the fact that Toledo has gone from having one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country last year with five senior starters to having one of the least experienced this time around. The development of that new line is the key to the season. If the offensive line grows up fast, the Rockets should be a championship-caliber team in 2015.
76. Arkansas State
The Red Wolves’ depth chart started to show the effects of four coaching changes in four seasons last fall. ASU was critically thin in key areas, starting with the defensive line, before a rash of season-ending injuries made matters worse. Still, there was enough talent on hand to pull out seven victories and make a fourth straight bowl trip. Blake Anderson’s second season starts with a difficult non-conference schedule, but ASU won’t face defending Sun Belt champion Georgia Southern in conference play. While the Red Wolves should put up plenty of points, they will have to improve defensively to maximize their potential.
77. Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern’s first year as an FBS member could hardly have gone better, as the Eagles went 8–0 in the Sun Belt and came within a couple plays of knocking off NC State and Georgia Tech. Don’t count on the Eagles getting complacent either, as NCAA rules governing FCS-to-FBS transitions prevented them from playing in a bowl game.
“We deserved a chance to go,” offensive lineman Darien Foreman says. “We felt like it wasn’t fair, but that’s a big motivation for us this offseason.” Georgia Southern should only get more potent as Willie Fritz molds and recruits players who fit his offense. If the defense plays at the same level or improves, the Eagles could easily repeat as conference champs.
78. Bowling Green
How the expectations have changed. The Falcons won at least eight games for the third straight season, claimed a second consecutive MAC East crown and won their first bowl game in a decade — but it wasn’t enough to reach the team’s lofty goals.
When coach Dino Babers and his fast-paced, high-powered offense arrived following the MAC championship season of 2013, visions of 50 points per game and another league title were prevalent. For 2015, Babers has the personnel to pull off that kind of explosive scoring. The Falcons have just about everyone back on an offense that should be among the best in the league. The young and inexperienced defense is suspect, however. Babers will be plugging holes with players he hopes possess the skill set to solidify the defense. If that happens, this should be a championship-caliber team that once again flirts with fulfilling those lofty expectations.
It’s difficult to put a positive spin on Derek Mason’s first year as a head coach. Coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons, Vanderbilt slumped to 3–9 overall and failed to win a game in the SEC. Mason’s second Vanderbilt team should be improved, thanks in part to more experience on both sides of the ball and upgrades on the coaching staff. But the Commodores will have to be drastically better, especially on offense, to make a move in the SEC East, where seemingly every program — with the possible exception of South Carolina — is on the uptick.
Despite the Huskies’ loss of most of their playmakers on offense and top sack specialist, the road to the MAC West title still goes through Northern Illinois. The offense has the potential to be formidable again with a solid group of running backs, an explosive corps of receivers and Hare benefiting from a full offseason as the starting quarterback. Defensively, the Huskies are solid in the secondary with a few spots to fill at linebacker and along the defensive line.
The Huskies have lost three straight bowl games, including a 52–23 blowout loss to Marshall in the Boca Raton Bowl last season. Rod Carey is not shying away from using that as motivation. The conference schedule is favorable for a run at a sixth straight West title and fourth conference championship in five years.