Every college football season brings a surprise or two each fall. And if you need evidence of that statement, take a look at the two teams that played for last year’s national championship: Florida State and Auburn.
While both programs had claimed previous championships during the BCS era, neither team was picked to win the national title last August.
So whether it’s a team finishing in the top 10 that no one expected in the preseason or another program struggling to reach .500 after a successful stretch, each year presents many different case studies when trying to project teams for the upcoming season. And some teams quickly rebound after a disappointing year to contend for a conference title or crack the top 25 once again.
Projecting which teams will fill those categories and show significant improvement is no easy task.
When it comes to judging improvement in college football, it doesn’t always come in the form of wins and losses. Improvement can simply come as a result of a team being more competitive within its conference and reducing the margin of defeat.
Kickoff for college football’s 2014 season is less than 40 days away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about which teams will be some of the most improved in the nation.
College Football’s Most-Improved Teams for 2014
Just based on talent, Florida can’t be any worse than it was last season. According to the recruiting rankings, the Gators are tied with Florida State for the No. 2 roster in college football. If Florida wants to contend in the SEC East this year, improving the offense has to be the top priority. The Gators averaged only 18.8 points per game and 4.7 yards per play (in conference games) in 2013. Help is coming in the form of a healthy Jeff Driskel at quarterback, along with the addition of Kurt Roper as the team’s new play-caller. Roper plans to utilize Driskel’s rushing ability more in 2014, while new line coach Mike Summers is tasked with fixing a unit that struggled mightily last year. Any improvement on offense should be enough for Florida to at least reach the postseason, especially since the Gators lost four games by a touchdown or less in 2013. The defense returns seven starters from a unit that allowed the fewest yards per play (5.09) in SEC games last year. Will Muschamp needs a big year to save his job. With a schedule that features crossover games against LSU and Alabama, along with a road trip to Tallahassee in November, drastic improvement in the win column will be tough. However, with a strong defense and more production from the offense, the Gators should be able to get to 7-5 or 8-4.
High expectations surrounded Northwestern going into 2013, as the Wildcats were coming off a 10-3 mark and a Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State. Northwestern started the year in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll and opened 4-0 with victories against California, Syracuse, Western Michigan and Maine. However, the injury bug took a toll on the Wildcats, and Pat Fitzgerald’s team lost seven out of its last eight games. Running back Venric Mark barely played in 2013 due to an ankle injury, and starting cornerback Daniel Jones was lost for the year due to a knee injury suffered in the opener against California. Northwestern used a two-quarterback system with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian last season, but the job is Siemian’s in 2014 with Colter expiring his eligibility. While Colter’s rushing ability will be missed, settling on one quarterback could benefit the offense. Seven starters return on defense, which should help this unit improve after allowing 27.1 points per game in 2013. Also, Northwestern is due for better luck in 2014. The Wildcats lost four games by eight points or less last year and gave up a late touchdown to Ohio State to lose 40-30.
By no means was 2013 a bad season for Penn State. The Nittany Lions were still dealing with NCAA sanctions and had no possibility of a bowl. However, Penn State managed to finish 7-5 with a true freshman at quarterback and closed the year by defeating Wisconsin 31-24 in Madison. New coach James Franklin should make an immediate impact in Happy Valley, as he’s inheriting a roster that ranks No. 4 in the Big Ten. Depth is suspect – especially on the line – but the Nittany Lions aren’t hurting for talent in the starting 22. Franklin squeezed the most out of his rosters at Vanderbilt, winning nine games in each of the last two seasons. Penn State’s schedule also sets up favorably, missing Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska in crossover play in 2014. Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg should thrive under Franklin’s watch, and the defense should show improvement on the stat sheet behind new coordinator Bob Shoop. The offensive line needs some work, but line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation. If Franklin can get everything out of the roster like he did at Vanderbilt, finishing 9-3 or 10-2 isn’t out of the question for Penn State.
Dave Doeren’s first season in Raleigh was a tough one. The Wolfpack went winless in ACC play for the first time since 1959 and finished the year on an eight-game losing streak. A lot of factors went into NC State’s losing mark in 2013, but the biggest was the quarterback position. Brandon Mitchell was injured in the opener and there was never any consistency under center. That should change in 2014, as Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett will stabilize the quarterback position and allow coordinator Matt Canada to install more of his spread offense. The Wolfpack also have a solid group of skill players – running back Shadrach Thornton and receiver Bryan Underwood – while freshman Bo Hines had a strong spring and is expected to contribute in the receiving corps. Left tackle Rob Crisp also returns after missing nearly all of 2013 due to a concussion. The defense allowed 30.2 points per game last season, but six starters are back, and the defensive line should emerge as a strength. The non-conference schedule is favorable. NC State plays four winnable games outside of the ACC, while swing games against Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest are at home.
On paper, a 4-8 record isn’t appealing for any coach or team. However, TCU was much closer to 7-5 than some may realize. The Horned Frogs lost by three points to West Virginia, two points at Kansas State, three points to Baylor and by three points at Oklahoma. After losing six games by 10 points or less last year, TCU just needs a little improvement from its offense to get back into bowl contention. And improvement should come in the form of new offensive co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie, along with the addition of quarterback Matt Joeckel. Major improvement isn’t expected in the new spread attack, but the Horned Frogs can’t be any worse on offense. Assuming Joeckel can stabilize the quarterback spot, Trevone Boykin could move back to receiver to give the offense another playmaker on the outside. Even without Jason Verrett at cornerback, TCU’s defense should be one of the best in the Big 12. With slight improvement on offense, the Horned Frogs will be back in a bowl. And TCU has a chance to play spoiler with Oklahoma and Kansas State both visiting Amon G. Carter Stadium in 2014.
Better…But it May Not Show in Win Column
Bret Bielema’s SEC debut wasn’t pretty. The Razorbacks finished 3-9 overall and went winless in conference play. Arkansas finished 2013 on a nine-game losing streak, but this team didn’t quit at the end of the year. The Razorbacks lost in overtime to Mississippi State and nearly defeated LSU (31-27) on Nov. 29. Bielema and his staff have a lot of work to do on the recruiting trail to upgrade the overall talent, but there are reasons for optimism for this team. Sophomores Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland headline a solid offensive line, and the running back corps ranks as one of the top 10 in the nation. Quarterback Brandon Allen should be better in his second year as the starter, especially if he can stay healthy after battling a shoulder injury in 2013. The schedule certainly isn’t kind for Arkansas, as crossover games against Georgia and Missouri are challenging. The Razorbacks came close to winning two SEC games last year. A bowl game would be a surprise, but Arkansas should close the gap some in the SEC West and find a way to win a game or two in conference play.
Everything that could go wrong seemed to in Sonny Dykes’ first season at California. Not only were the Golden Bears battling through scheme changes on both sides of the ball, they were hit hard by injuries on defense, started a true freshman at quarterback (Jared Goff) and finished with a minus-15 in turnover margin. After hitting rock bottom, California can only go up in 2014. A tough non-conference schedule awaits the Golden Bears, as a road trip to Northwestern starts the season, followed by the finale against BYU. Dykes’ team also plays Arizona, UCLA and USC in crossover play with the Pac-12 South Division. Both sides of the ball have question marks, but the passing attack should be a strength, especially with Goff healthy and having another offseason under his belt. The defense allowed 45.9 points per game in 2013, but new coordinator Art Kaufman should bring immediate improvement. Don’t expect drastic steps forward in the win column for California, but this team should find a way to win a game in Pac-12 play after going winless in 2013.
After going 1-11 in Kevin Wilson’s first season (2011), Indiana has made improvement in the win column in each of the last two years. The Hoosiers went 4-8 in 2012 and finished 5-7 last season, barely missing out on a bowl game. With 16 starters back, Indiana should be a better overall team in 2014 but getting to six or seven wins will be difficult. The Hoosiers were aligned in the Big Ten’s East Division, which features annual matchups against Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers and Maryland. Home games against Penn State and Maryland are winnable, but Indiana also gets a road trip to Iowa in crossover play. In addition to a challenging schedule, Wilson has to fix a struggling defense. The Hoosiers allowed 38.8 points per game last season and allowed 7.4 yards per play in conference matchups. With one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines, along with a standout backfield (quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Tevin Coleman), Indiana’s offense won’t be a concern. However, if the defense struggles again, a challenging schedule will keep the Hoosiers at home for the bowl season.
It’s going to take coach Mark Stoops a few years to build Kentucky’s roster into one that can consistently compete for bowl games in the SEC. However, the Wildcats are trending in the right direction. Kentucky signed the No. 22 class in 2014, an improvement after inking the No. 34 recruiting haul in '13. Those two totals are the best two classes the Wildcats have brought in over the last five years, and all signs point to another standout group coming to Lexington in 2015. With the improvement in talent, it should start to show on the field for Stoops. Kentucky went 2-10 in Stoops’ debut but lost two SEC games by a touchdown or less. Finding a quarterback is the top priority for coordinator Neal Brown, and Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and touted freshman Drew Barker will all contend for time in the fall. The talent at the skill positions has improved, and Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard should team with Jojo Kemp to form an effective one-two punch in the backfield. Stoops’ specialty is on defense, and that’s an area of focus this offseason after allowing 6.8 yards per play in SEC games. Kentucky should be able to win three of its non-conference matchups and could steal a win in conference play this year.
The Utes are still working to get acclimated to their new Pac-12 surroundings, so it’s no surprise the program has struggled to get bowl eligible in the last two years. Since winning four Pac-12 games in its conference debut, Utah is just 5-13 in league play. Some bad luck and injuries have prevented the Utes from getting into the postseason the last two years but that could change in 2014. New play-caller Dave Christensen should bring stability to an offense that averaged only 29.2 points per game in 2013 and help junior quarterback Travis Wilson develop after an up-and-down season. Wilson was injured late in the year but was cleared to play earlier this summer. The Utes always seem to find replacements on defense, so getting back to a bowl in 2014 will hinge on Wilson’s progress and how well this team navigates a schedule that features crossover games against Oregon and Stanford. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Utah went 5-7 again but was competitive against the top teams in the conference.
Transitioning to the Big 12 has been a challenge for West Virginia, as the Mountaineers are just 6-12 in conference play over the last two seasons. After winning seven games in 2012, Dana Holgorsen’s team regressed to 4-8 last year. However, West Virginia lost two games in overtime in November. It seems odd for a Holgorsen-coached team to have question marks at quarterback, but that’s the storyline facing the Mountaineers’ offense in 2014. Clint Trickett is slated to start, assuming his surgically repaired shoulder is at full strength. The strength of West Virginia’s offense is at running back, and the defense should improve with the return of six starters. Even though West Virginia is due to be a better team in terms of on-field performance, it may not show in the win column. The Mountaineers play Alabama and Maryland in non-conference play and swing games against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Iowa State are away from Morgantown.
Four Teams Outside the Power 5 Conferences to Watch
The Tigers are making steady progress under third-year coach Justin Fuente. After winning just five games from 2009-11, Memphis has won seven in the last two years and lost four games by a touchdown or less in 2013. With 15 starters back, the Tigers could push for a bowl in 2014. The defense finished No. 5 in the American Athletic in points allowed, and end Martin Ifedi is one of the nation’s most underrated defenders. Memphis needs more from its offense – especially quarterback Paxton Lynch – but with the turnover at the bottom of the conference, combined with improvement on both sides of the ball, the Tigers have the potential to win six games in 2014.
The Wolf Pack slipped to 4-8 in Brian Polian’s first season in Reno, but there’s plenty of optimism for a turnaround in 2014. Nevada’s schedule in conference play is favorable, as Fresno State and San Diego State both visit Mackay Stadium, and the Wolf Pack won’t have to play Utah State from the Mountain Division. Quarterback Cody Fajardo battled leg injuries for most of last season and a full offseason to recover will benefit the entire offense. New defensive coordinator Scott Boone is tasked with fixing a unit that allowed 6.8 yards per play in Mountain West games last season, and he should have plenty of help with eight returning starters.
The Zips showed marked improvement in Terry Bowden’s second season. Akron finished 1-11 in 2012 but went 5-7 last year and 4-4 in conference play. The Zips had a couple of close calls, including a four-point defeat at Michigan and a seven-point loss to Northern Illinois. Bowling Green is the clear front-runner in the East, but Akron could surprise with another offseason of improvement. Kyle Pohl is one of the top returning passers in the MAC, and running back Jawon Chisholm has rushed for at least 860 yards in each of the last three seasons. The defense returns only four starters, so there are holes to fill for coordinator Chuck Amato.
Willie Taggart didn’t inherit a ton of talent from previous coach Skip Holtz, and the Bulls slumped to 2-10 in Taggart’s debut. USF’s offense managed only 13.8 points per game and lost 17 turnovers in eight American Athletic Conference contests. Despite all of last year’s problems, the Bulls are positioned for immediate improvement. Taggart signed the No. 40 recruiting class in 2014 – the No. 1 haul in the conference – and a handful of young players saw extensive playing time in 2013. Sophomore quarterback Mike White is promising, and the offensive line could be one of the best in the American Athletic with four returning starters. The middle of the conference is wide open, and USF has a good collection of young talent waiting to emerge. Taggart needs more time to build the roster to his liking, but the door is open for the Bulls to get back into the postseason in 2014.