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 81-100 rankings release features only three teams from the Power 5 leagues. The majority of the programs in this batch of rankings is from the Group of 5 leagues, including a program on the rise in Western Michigan, two talented Sun Belt programs in UL Lafayette and Appalachian State and Air Force and Nevada from the Mountain West.
Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2015 season
College Football's 2015 Projected Rankings: No. 81-100
81. Western Michigan
WMU won eight games in 2014, but “we probably won more games on paper than what kind of football team we actually had,” P.J. Fleck says. “We kind of got on a roll.” This year’s team might be better and win less. The schedule is unforgiving. In an apparent effort to win the Big Ten’s East Division, the Broncos get Michigan State and Ohio State in September, opening with the Spartans in Kalamazoo. They close with midweek road games at division rivals Northern Illinois and Toledo, both of which Fleck has yet to beat. “We’ve done all the work to earn expectations,” Fleck says. Meeting them will be a bear.
82. Wake Forest
Coach Dave Clawson, coming off two straight bowl games at Bowling Green, walked into a disaster. The Deacons will be one of the nation’s youngest teams again, and the offense could feature eight underclassmen as starters. They have a difficult schedule and are likely a year away from being truly competitive, but Clawson’s recruiting classes have been historically good, giving hope that he can transform the program.
83. Air Force
The Falcons averaged 31.5 points per game in 2014. That number could jump to near 40 this season. The fullbacks and receivers are at historical strength, and if opposing defensive coordinators stack against the run, Romine owns the arm power and accuracy to torch defensive backs.
But can the defense keep opposing offenses in check? The Falcons win, and win big, when their undersized defenders consistently keep opponents under 25 points per game.
Expect the Falcons to rush to a winning record, which would be the seventh in nine seasons under coach Troy Calhoun, but the youthful defense must quickly jell for the Falcons to again flirt with 10 wins.
Having yet to win a Big Ten home game in coach Darrell Hazell’s first two seasons and having failed to win any game after the first week of October, Purdue needs to take a big step in 2015 to placate a fan base that is grumbling after a November free fall that included losing to rival Indiana for a second consecutive season. The defense has a chance to be much better, and the offensive line is sound with six players back who started at least six games in 2014. But other than receiver Danny Anthrop, the Boilermakers are lacking in proven playmakers — and he is coming off a torn ACL.
Finding a way to get out of the Big Ten West basement will be quite a challenge.
Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer has his work cut out to improve on a 3–9 season. Margin for error will be slim with a new offensive system and eight new defensive starters. And with (now former) athletic director Daryl Gross choosing to “take on new challenges” following the NCAA’s handing down of sanctions in March, Shafer could be coaching for his job.
86. Louisiana Tech
The Bulldogs are expected to repeat as C-USA West champs, though their two most challenging league games — Western Kentucky and Rice — are both on the road. Two other significant road challenges will come at Kansas State (9–4 in 2014) and Mississippi State (10–3), although coach Skip Holtz should plan on another bowl trip this holiday season. Florida transfer quarterback Jeff Driskel’s acclimation to his new offense is the key. He has plenty of skill pieces in place to propel him to the consistent level of success he never enjoyed at Florida. The defense is again loaded with playmakers, but linebackers must emerge if it wants to be one of the league’s best units. This should be another fun season in Ruston.
87. UL Lafayette
This is a program that has thrived under coach Mark Hudspeth’s leadership, and the Cajuns are expected to continue to enjoy success again this year. They have posted four consecutive 9–4 records and four straight New Orleans Bowl appearances. While competition will be strong, Lafayette is expected to contend for the Sun Belt title once again. There is concern based on inexperience at a couple of key positions, most notably quarterback and on the defensive line, but there is also a confidence among those in the program based on recent success.
MTSU has been bowl-eligible in five of the past six seasons, and the 2015 squad has enough talent and experience to add to that total. But the schedule doesn’t do the Blue Raiders any favors. Two weeks after a trip to Alabama, MTSU begins a three-game stretch against Illinois, Vanderbilt and high-powered rival Western Kentucky. The senior-laden squad could be coach Rick Stockstill’s best in a few years, but the record might not show it.
“We’ve got some tough road games; it’s not just our out-of-conference games,” Stockstill says. “Western Kentucky could be favored to win the East, and we go there. Louisiana Tech could be favored to win the West, and we go there. But for us to contend (in Conference USA), we have got to stay healthy through those first five games so we can play well down the stretch in our conference.”
Rice has come a long way since the days of being “everybody’s homecoming game,” head coach David Bailiff says. The best three-year stretch in school history has produced three straight bowl appearances (two wins), 25 victories and a 2013 C-USA title. Construction began this offseason on a $31.5 million end-zone training facility, and there are talks about a much-needed facelift for Rice Stadium. With so many questions — and a tough opening month — it might be asking too much to come close to the win totals from the last three seasons, but the Owls should be in position for another bowl trip.
The transition from FCS powerhouse to Sun Belt newcomer was likely a jarring one for Mountaineers fans who fondly recall the heady days of winning national titles and authoring an all-time great upset at Michigan. But this season should provide them with a pleasant taste of their new normal.
By finishing third in the Sun Belt last season, the Mountaineers showed they could compete. With loads of experience back and plenty of confidence banked from last year’s strong finish, there’s no reason to believe this season can’t be even better.
Throw in the fact that the Mountaineers could now earn a bowl invite — they were barred from it last season — and have a schedule that features home games against league heavyweights UL-Lafayette, Arkansas State and longtime Southern Conference rival Georgia Southern, and life on the FBS level should begin to feel just right.
With questions at quarterback, offensive line and receiver, Nevada will rely on its improving defense. Still, there will be bumps.
San Diego State is the favorite in the West Division, but Nevada isn’t far behind. A favorable home conference slate should help Nevada land a bowl game for the 10th time in 11 years.
UMass won just one game in each of its first two FBS seasons. Last year it jumped up to three wins and nearly had more as a play or two might have changed the results of several games. With most of last year’s team returning, the Minutemen have a chance to take a significant step forward. It’s a critical year for UMass, which is leaving the MAC after the season for an undetermined stretch as an Independent. It’s hoped that a strong year capped by UMass’ first bowl appearance since 1972 might pique the interest of a conference willing to offer permanent membership.
93. Texas State
Texas State has been knocking on the door for a bowl game during the past two seasons. In fact, the Bobcats were the only 7–5 bowl-eligible team not to receive a postseason invite last season. To secure its first bowl berth in program history, Texas State will likely ask its offense to carry the torch early in the hope that its defense will flourish toward the end of the season. The Bobcats have a favorable home schedule but must face league powers Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and UL Lafayette on the road. If Texas State can sweep its home slate and steal one or two games on the road, coach Dennis Franchione’s team should finally bust down the bowl door.
94. Ball State
Blessed with 17 returning starters from a group that won four of its final six games, Ball State ought to be able to shrug off last year’s step back and be a factor in the tough MAC West. The key is how Jack Milas grows into the starting quarterback role. “I’m not going to say he has arrived by any means,” Pete Lembo says, “but he’s more comfortable out there.”
Wyoming is still a work in progress after switching offensive and defensive philosophies when Craig Bohl was hired. More development should occur this season with a more manageable schedule, but the Cowboys are still a couple of years away from being serious contenders in the Mountain West.
96. New Mexico
New Mexico faces five teams that won four or fewer games last season, plus FCS member Mississippi Valley State, so getting to six wins is not an impossible task. Should quarterback Austin Apodaca adjust to the running portion of the offense and create a legitimate passing attack, New Mexico is going to score enough to win some games.
Defensively, the team gave up more than 28 points per game against unranked opponents, a number that simply has to come down. A bowl game is the ceiling for this year’s team, but it is a ceiling that at least appears to be reachable for the first time in the Bob Davie era.
The third year of the Terry Bowden era was a major disappointment as the Zips finished with a second straight 5–7 record. Led by some key returnees and a host of talented transfers, Akron should take a step forward in 2015 and contend in the MAC East Division. Anything short of a winning record will be considered a disappointment.
Coming off a 6–6 season in which the Bobcats were blown out several times, Ohio should rebound nicely in 2015. With experienced depth across the board, an aggressive, quick defense, and an emerging star in running back A.J. Ouellette, the Bobcats won’t be learning on the fly like they were in 2014. Ohio will be a factor in the MAC East, and a bump in wins and a bowl berth should be the expectation.
99. South Florida
It has the look of a produce-or-else season for Willie Taggart, who is 6–18 with the Bulls and must avoid the program’s fifth straight season without a bowl appearance. Taggart fired three assistant coaches immediately after last season, including both coordinators. He changed the offensive style of play, shocking observers who said Taggart was too stubborn.
Running back Marlon Mack is a wonderful weapon. There are some building blocks on defense. But the schedule is formidable, and the Bulls must make a big jump to reach the postseason. The offense may be picking up the pace, but Taggart is running out of time.
In just three springs, coach Sean Kugler has built exactly the team he wants at his alma mater: An offense that pounds the ball up the middle, a stout defense that makes plays and a squad that avoids penalties and turnovers. UTEP’s problems have come when it runs into teams with a similar mentality and better personnel, which happened in four of the six losses last season and figures to happen in the first game of the season at Arkansas. These Miners, though, should be better than last year, and for the first time since 2006, they’re building off a winning season.