College football’s 2014 season is only five weeks old, but it’s clear some teams are already showing improvement from their 2013 performance.
Arkansas, West Virginia, California and NC State highlight just a few of the teams from Power 5 conferences taking a step forward in their development after each recorded a losing record last year.
There’s a long way to go this year, and this list could look significantly different by December. Injuries, coaching changes, emergence of quarterbacks and other various elements of surprise will create more chaos across college football. It’s always tough to put too much stock in teams that have played a weak schedule in the first month of the season, but after examining each team’s record through September, here are 12 teams we think are significantly improved from 2013.
College Football's Top 12 Most-Improved Teams in 2014
Power 5 Conference Teams
It may seem odd to call Arkansas improved at just 3-2, but the Razorbacks are making significant progress in coach Bret Bielema’s second year. Arkansas held its own against Auburn in the first half and led Texas A&M 28-14 in the fourth quarter. While both were losses, it’s a clear sign Bielema has the program on the right track – he just needs more talent. The rushing attack leads the way for Arkansas on offense, averaging 316.6 yards per game, with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams both ranking among the top five backs in yards per game in the SEC. There’s also progress on defense, where first-year coordinator Robb Smith helped Arkansas lower its points allowed per game to 25.8 after giving up 30.8 in 2013.
What’s Next: The SEC West is challenging, so Arkansas has an uphill battle to make a bowl in 2014. The defense and passing attack are Bielema’s biggest areas to improve over the next seven games, and the development of both units will decide whether or not the Razorbacks can get to six wins in a brutal SEC West.
The Golden Bears slumped to 1-11 in Sonny Dykes’ first season, but due to better luck in the injury department and improvement on both sides of the ball, California is off to a 3-1 start. And if it wasn’t for Arizona’s Hail Mary connection on Sept. 20, the Golden Bears would be 4-0. Quarterback Jared Goff is off to a fast start (17 TDs, 3 INTs), guiding the offense to an average of 7.1 yards per play. Injuries hit the defense hard last season, but new coordinator Art Kaufman was a needed addition after Andy Buh’s struggles in 2013. California is allowing only 35.8 points per game after giving up 45.9 in 2013.
What’s Next: Improving the second-half defense is a priority. 71 of the 143 points allowed by the Golden Bears occurred over the final two quarters and in overtime. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem, but California will only go to a bowl if its defense continues to show progress over the next eight games. The Golden Bears have a shot at a bowl, especially if they can beat Washington State this Saturday and beat Washington on Oct. 11.
With a 3-1 record, Kentucky is off to its best start since 2010. The Wildcats have made considerable progress under second-year coach Mark Stoops, snapping a 16-game SEC losing streak by defeating Vanderbilt 17-7 and nearly winning at Florida (36-30 3 OT) on Sept. 13. Stoops’ recruiting efforts are paying off with an upgraded roster, and the offense features a handful of young players poised to make an impact over the next couple of years. After scoring over 20 points only three times in 2013, the Wildcats have already reached that total in two games in 2014. Kentucky’s offense is averaging 31.5 points per game – a clear improvement from last season’s 20.5 mark.
What’s Next: Kentucky was picked by most to finish last in the SEC East, but with a win over Vanderbilt, the Wildcats now have an outside shot at a bowl. The schedule doesn’t provide many favors with four consecutive games against ranked foes (LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri and Georgia) in October/early November. Even if the Wildcats fall short of postseason eligibility, the program is trending in the right direction going into 2015.
The Wolfpack nearly shocked the college football world with an upset over Florida State last Saturday. Even though NC State’s upset bid fell short, second-year coach Dave Doeren has the Wolfpack on track to make a bowl after a 3-9 record last season. The key cog in the turnaround has been the play of quarterback Jacoby Brissett. After sitting out 2013 due to transfer rules, Brissett has thrown for 13 touchdowns to just one interception and is completing 68.9 percent of his passes.
What’s Next: NC State is a young team, and most of the core from this year’s squad is set to return in 2015. Getting to a bowl game would be a huge step in the right direction for Doeren. And of course, beating North Carolina on Nov. 29 wouldn’t hurt Doeren’s rebuilding effort. Brissett should be in the mix for All-ACC honors, and the offense needs to carry this team with a defense giving up 26 points per game so far in 2014.
Considering the three opponents on TCU’s schedule (Samford, Minnesota and SMU), this team is still a mystery. However, for a team that lost six games by 10 points or less last year, there are positive signs the Horned Frogs have turned things around and can contend for eight wins in 2014. After scoring just 25.1 points per game last year, TCU is averaging 44.7 through three contests. Of course, competition is a question, but quarterbacks Trevone Boykin and Matt Joeckel have combined for 10 passing touchdowns, which nearly equals the team’s total from 2013 (14). And as usual, Gary Patterson’s defense is slated to be one of the best in the Big 12.
What’s Next: We should find out just how good TCU is over the next two weeks. The Horned Frogs host Oklahoma this Saturday and play at Baylor on Oct. 11. After losing its share of close games last year, TCU is bound to have better luck in the win column in 2014. If the offense continues to progress under new co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie, the Horned Frogs can finish 8-4 or even 9-3.
Mike London entered 2014 squarely on the hot seat with an 18-31 record over the last four years. So far, London is on track to save his job, as the Cavaliers are 3-2 through the first month of the season. Virginia lost to UCLA by eight in the opener and fell by eight on the road at BYU. The Cavaliers have already exceeded their win total from last year and are squarely in the mix to compete in a wide-open Coastal Division.
What’s Next: Virginia has its share of flaws, but there’s no perfect team in the Coastal Division. Quarterback play and the offensive line are two units to watch over the next few weeks if the Cavaliers are to make a serious push for the division title. London has recruited well, so talent certainly isn’t an issue in Charlottesville. Can the Cavaliers continue to progress enough for London to reach six wins and save his job for 2015?
A tough schedule and quarterback uncertainty led many to project West Virginia to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 this year. The tough schedule remains, but the Mountaineers found an answer at quarterback in senior Clint Trickett, and coach Dana Holgorsen’s high-scoring offense is back in Morgantown. Trickett has thrown for nine touchdowns and 1,600 yards through four games, while the emergence of Kevin White has provided the passing attack with a go-to target. West Virginia’s defense still needs some work, but after playing Oklahoma and Alabama tough, Holgorsen’s team has showed it is ready to easily surpass last year’s 4-8 record.
What’s Next: The next barometer test for West Virginia is an Oct. 18 date against Baylor but most of the remaining games on the schedule are winnable. Road trips to Texas and Oklahoma State, along with home dates against TCU and Kansas State certainly aren’t easy, but if the Mountaineers can hang with Oklahoma and Alabama, they certainly have a shot to win any of those contests.
Group of 5 Teams
The Zips made a four-game improvement from 2012 to 2013 and could make a similar jump in 2014. Akron is 2-2 after beating Pittsburgh and hosts preseason MAC East favorite Bowling Green on Nov. 4. Road tests at Ohio, Ball State and Buffalo are challenging, but Terry Bowden’s Zips rank No. 1 in the MAC scoring defense, and this team has improved its overall talent and depth over the last three years.
Just four games into the season and Air Force has already exceeded its win total from 2013 (2). Victories over Nicholls State and Georgia State didn’t move the needle nationally, but the Falcons knocked off Boise State 28-14 last Saturday. Troy Calhoun’s team will have a chance to take a lead for the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy with a win over Navy on Oct. 4. With games against UNLV, New Mexico and Army remaining, Air Force should have a good chance to return to the postseason.
Coming off a 4-8 season, Louisiana Tech didn’t garner much consideration to be picked near the top of Conference USA’s West Division. But five weeks into the season, the Bulldogs have to be one of the frontrunners in a wide-open division. After a rocky debut, coach Skip Holtz seems to have the program pointed in the right direction, as Louisiana Tech has scored road wins over UL Lafayette and North Texas. Challenging non-conference games against Oklahoma and Auburn has skewed the stats, but new coordinator Manny Diaz has made a difference on defense, and quarterback Cody Sokol has already matched the team’s touchdown total (10) from all of last year.
Memphis was a program in disarray after the failed two-year stint under Larry Porter, but Justin Fuente has transformed the Tigers back into a bowl team in three seasons. Memphis has won nine games over the last three years and is off to a 2-2 start in 2014. The Tigers gave UCLA all it could handle on Sept. 6 and played Ole Miss tough in a 24-3 loss. Defense is leading the way for Memphis, as the Barry Odom’s group ranks third in the American Athletic Conference by allowing just 20.8 points per game – and that’s after playing UCLA and Ole Miss. With winnable conference games against Tulane, USF, UConn, Tulsa and SMU remaining, the Tigers should go bowling for the first time since 2008.
Temple finished 2-10 last year, but a deeper look at the Owls’ schedule shows this team was more competitive over the second half of the season and was just a couple plays away from winning four games. In Matt Rhule’s debut season, Temple lost its last four games by 10 points or less. The Owls are successfully building off last year’s improvement, jumping to a 3-1 start through the first four weeks. A huge road win at Vanderbilt got the momentum rolling, while the Owls defeated Delaware State and UConn by a combined score of 95-10. Quarterback P.J. Walker ranks second in the conference with a 65.1 completion percentage, and Temple’s defense is allowing just 4.6 yards per play.