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College Football's Most Improved Teams for 2015

Mason Rudolph

Mason Rudolph

The overall unpredictability of a college football season is one of the main reasons to tune in each Saturday during the fall. While preseason predictions and rankings are often accurate and correctly project the amount of wins for specific teams, each season always brings a surprise or two in the top 25.

2015 will be no different, as there will be a handful of teams that jump into the top 25 that weren’t ranked there in the preseason. And who knows, maybe there is a program poised to emerge as a national title contender.

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.

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 2015 season is just over 70 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 2015

Power 5 Teams

Auburn

Auburn could go from a .500 team in SEC play to a playoff contender. The Tigers are explosive on offense and feature rising star Jeremy Johnson at quarterback to replace Nick Marshall. The defense has to improve after giving up 6.4 yards per play in SEC games last season. With six starters back, Will Muschamp calling the signals and end Carl Lawson back from injury, this group should show marked improvement. And it certainly doesn’t hurt Auburn’s national title hopes that Georgia and Alabama must visit Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2015.

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Related: SEC 2015 All-Conference Team

California

Thanks to a brutal schedule, major improvement in the win column seems unlikely for California. However, a one or two-game jump in victories is certainly within reach. The Golden Bears improved from 1-11 in 2013 to 5-7 last year and return 13 starters for 2015. The offense averaged 38.3 points per game last season, and there’s little reason to expect this unit to slow its performance. Quarterback Jared Goff continues to develop entering his junior campaign, running back Daniel Lasco quietly rushed for 1,115 yards last year, and the receiving corps is deep with proven options. The defense was the biggest concern for coach Sonny Dykes last year and is an issue once again. But with Washington taking a step back and question marks at Stanford and Oregon, California could pull an upset (or two) and should reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.

Related: Pac-12 2015 All-Conference Team

Indiana

Indiana’s bowl hopes ended shortly after quarterback Nate Sudfeld suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last year. The Hoosiers were never able to find consistent production at quarterback the rest of the year, as the offense never eclipsed more than 179 passing yards over the final seven games. With Sudfeld back in the mix, Indiana has a good shot at getting to a bowl in 2015. Of course, replacing running back Tevin Coleman and finding receivers for Sudfeld are two key question marks to address, but the Hoosiers have a favorable non-conference slate and play three key swing games at home. UAB transfer Jordan Howard should be a capable replacement for Coleman, and talented sophomore J-Shun Harris is a breakout candidates at receiver. Improving the defense is another priority for coach Kevin Wilson, as this unit gave up 32.8 points per game and allowed too many big plays. Making matters worse, star safety Antonio Allen was dismissed after an offseason arrest.

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Related: College Football's Top Transfers for 2015

Michigan

Jim Harbaugh is one of the nation’s top coaches, and it won’t be long before Michigan is back in contention for the Big Ten title. The Wolverines may not have elite talent right now, but there’s more in place than the recent on-field performance would suggest. Defense is the strength of Harbaugh’s first team, as six starters return from a unit that limited opponents to 4.8 yards per play in 2014. Offense is Harbaugh’s specialty, and this unit needs a lot of attention after averaging 20.9 points per game last year. Iowa transfer Jake Rudock could start at quarterback but expect to see plenty of running backs Derrick Green and Ty Isaac in the gameplan.

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Related: College Football's Top Impact Quarterback Transfers for 2015

Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish’s 2014 season took a huge hit before the first game was played. Defensive standouts in cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams were suspended for the entire year, leaving a massive void on a defense breaking in a new scheme under coordinator Brian VanGorder. Russell is slated to return in 2015, and Williams appears to be on track as well. In addition to suspensions, Notre Dame was hit hard by the injury bug and struggled on defense in the second half of 2014. With Everett Golson transferring to Florida State, the starting quarterback job clearly belongs to Malik Zaire. The sophomore showcased his talents in the Music City Bowl win over LSU and will have plenty of help from a standout receiving corps and offensive line. The schedule isn’t easy, but Notre Dame also has enough talent to push for a 10-2 record. 

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Related: All-America Team for 2015

Oklahoma State

A projected one-game jump in the win column isn’t necessarily the best indicator of how Oklahoma State should improve in 2015. The Cowboys were headed to a 5-7 finish last year, until a late punt return by Tyreek Hill against Oklahoma gave Oklahoma State an opportunity to score a win over its in-state rival in overtime. Hill’s punt return propelled the Cowboys to a bowl game, which coach Mike Gundy’s team responded with a solid 30-22 win over Washington in the Cactus Bowl. Oklahoma State should go from a fringe bowl team to a contender for a spot in the top 25 in 2015. Quarterback Mason Rudolph is a rising star, and the sophomore is anchored by an improving offensive line and deep receiving corps. The defense is also expected to improve with seven starters returning. And how’s this for scheduling: Oklahoma State plays three home games in November – TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma. That’s a good recipe for a team on the rebound as the Cowboys will be peaking in the second half of 2015.

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Pittsburgh

There’s not much separating the teams in the Coastal Division. While Georgia Tech is the favorite, the Panthers could surprise in coach Pat Narduzzi’s first year. The offense scored at least 30 points in each of the last five games of 2014, and eight starters are back for 2015. Running back James Conner and receiver Tyler Boyd are two of the top skill players in the nation, and the offensive line could be the best in the ACC. Narduzzi and new coordinator Josh Conklin should make a big impact on defense, as this unit has to play better after giving up 26.3 points per game in 2014. With a favorable schedule – no Florida State, Clemson or NC State in crossover play – Pittsburgh could push for a finish among the top three in the Coastal.

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Tennessee

The SEC East is Georgia’s division to lose in 2015. But what happens if the Bulldogs struggle to find a quarterback? Tennessee is positioned for a run at the division title if that happens, and the Volunteers should post their best record under coach Butch Jones. Tennessee returns 17 starters and additional help is on the way in the form of another stellar recruiting class. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is poised to push for All-SEC honors after an impressive second half of 2014. The junior has help in the form of a talented duo at running back, an experienced receiving corps and four returning starters on the offensive line. Tennessee should take a big step forward in Jones’ third year on Rocky Top.

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Related: SEC 2015 All-Conference Team

Texas Tech

Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure at Texas Tech started fast. The Red Raiders opened 7-0 in 2013 but lost their final five regular season games. However, since the 7-0 start in 2013, Texas Tech is just 5-13 and is coming off a disappointing 2-7 mark in Big 12 play last year. While this team underachieved in 2014, a rebound is in store for 2015. As usual, the offense will be explosive. Running back DeAndre Washington is an underrated player, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes showed promise in a late-season stint. But for the Red Raiders to get back to the postseason, improving the defense is a must. Hiring David Gibbs as coordinator will pay immediate dividends for this unit, and there’s only one way to go after giving up 41.3 points per game last year. After posting a -13 in the turnover margin in 2014, Texas Tech is due for better luck in this department in 2015.

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Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech recorded eight consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins from 2004-11, but the Hokies have not won more than eight in each of the last three years. Can coach Frank Beamer return this program to national prominence? The pieces are in place for improvement in 2015. The defense is one of the best in college football with the return of eight starters, along with two players – cornerback Brandon Facyson and tackle Luther Maddy – back from injury. While the defense will be salty, the offense has to improve for the Hokies to win the Coastal. There’s optimism on that side of the ball, as quarterback Michael Brewer has a full offseason to work as the No. 1 signal-caller, and there’s good skill talent in place at running back and receiver. The offensive line remains a concern after giving up 34 sacks in 2014. With no Florida State, Clemson or Louisville on the schedule, Virginia Tech has a favorable path to the Coastal title. Is this the year Beamer gets the Hokies back to being a top 25 team?

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Related: ACC 2015 Predictions

Others to Watch

Colorado

Mike MacIntyre has Colorado trending in the right direction. However, it’s going to take some time before the Buffaloes are ready to move up in the South Division.

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Northwestern

Since a 10-3 mark in 2012, the Wildcats are just 10-14 in their last two years. This team has experienced some bad luck in close games in that two-year window, but 15 returning starters should give coach Pat Fitzgerald reason to expect improvement. If the Wildcats find a quarterback, a bowl game should be within reach.

Penn State

The Nittany Lions will be better in coach James Franklin's second season. How much? That depends on an offensive line that struggled last season. 

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Stanford

The Cardinal is coming off its first season of fewer than 11 wins under coach David Shaw. The defense loses several key contributors from 2014, but the offense is poised to take a step forward in quarterback Kevin Hogan’s senior year. Can Stanford push Oregon in the North?

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Texas A&M

Offense certainly isn’t a concern for the Aggies. How much will the defense improve under new coordinator John Chavis? 

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Group of 5 Teams

Akron

Akron is still looking for a breakthrough year under coach Terry Bowden. The Zips have won five games in back-to-back seasons and just missed a .500 mark in league play for the second consecutive year after a three-point loss to Kent State in late November. Akron needs more from Kyle Pohl or Pittsburgh transfer Tra’Von Chapman at quarterback, but the defense should be among the best in the MAC. With no Northern Illinois, Toledo or Western Michigan on the schedule in crossover play, Akron has one of the MAC’s most favorable slates. Getting to six wins is a very reasonable goal for the Zips.

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Related: MAC Predictions for 2015

Appalachian State

Scott Satterfield’s squad finished 2014 as one of the hottest teams in the Sun Belt. The Mountaineers won six in a row to close out last year, including victories over bowl teams UL Lafayette and Arkansas State. With 20 starters back, Appalachian State should push for the Sun Belt title. Quarterback Taylor Lamb and running back Marcus Cox will be two of the league’s best players, and the defense will show improvement after allowing 27.3 points per game in 2014.

Related: Sun Belt Predictions for 2015

Ball State

Last season's 5-7 mark was only the second losing record of Pete Lembo’s coaching career. With 17 returning starters, don’t expect a repeat of last year’s record. The Cardinals found their quarterback late last season in Jack Milas, and the sophomore has a solid group of receivers to lean on and all five starters up front. The defense has room to improve after giving up 27.2 points per game in 2014. The front seven is solid, but the secondary will have three new starters. Expect to see Ball State back in the mix for a spot in college football’s postseason in 2015.

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Related: MAC Predictions for 2015

Buffalo

New coach Lance Leipold was one of the offseason’s top hires, and the Bulls return nine starters from a team that won five games in 2014. While the defense and offensive line have plenty of holes to plug, the offense should be explosive behind quarterback Joe Licata and running back Anthone Taylor. Buffalo has three winnable games in September, and a 3-1 start would give Leipold’s team a chance to reach bowl eligibility. Leipold went 109-6 in eight years at Wisconsin-Whitewater, and it won’t be long before the Wisconsin native has Buffalo in contention for the MAC East title.

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Related: MAC Predictions for 2015

Houston

It seems odd to suggest a team that has won eight games in back-to-back years could be on the most-improved list. However, the Cougars are a team on the rise headed into 2015. New coach Tom Herman is a rising star, and the former Ohio State play-caller should transform Greg Ward Jr. into one of the American Athletic’s top quarterbacks. With Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis all visiting TDECU Stadium in 2015, Houston has a chance to push for double-digit wins in 2015.

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Related: American Athletic 2015 Predictions

New Mexico

The Lobos have won 11 games in coach Bob Davie’s three years, but progress has been noticeable. New Mexico won two games in Mountain West play last season and was competitive in losses against Boise State (11 points) and Utah State (seven). With 11 starters back, combined with a favorable schedule, the Lobos may have enough to push for bowl eligibility. Getting to six wins will largely depend on the development of Lamar Jordan or Austin Apodaca at quarterback, along with a defense that has struggled mightily in recent years.

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Related: Mountain West Predictions for 2015

SMU

The Mustangs made one of the offseason’s top hires by bringing in Chad Morris as the program’s new head coach. Morris has strong recruiting ties to the state of Texas from his experience as a high school coach, and his offense should have no trouble attracting talent to Dallas. Junior quarterback Matt Davis is a breakout candidate and a good fit for Morris’ spread attack. Despite last year’s 1-11 record, SMU has talent in the program. An immediate boost in the win column is coming for the Mustangs in 2015.

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Related: American Athletic 2015 Predictions

Temple

Cincinnati is the heavy favorite to win the American Athletic’s East Division in 2015, but keep a close watch on the development of Temple. The Owls return 17 starters from a team that made a four-game improvement in the win column last year. Quarterback P.J. Walker needs more help from the supporting cast for the offense to improve off last year’s totals. The good news for Walker: Running back Zaire Williams is healthy, and receiver Robby Anderson (17.9 ypc average in 2013) are expected to return to the team. The defense could be the best in the American Athletic this season, as linebacker Tyler Matakevich anchors a unit that held opponents to 17.5 points per game last year.

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Related: American Athletic 2015 Predictions

UMass

The Minutemen showed significant progress in Mark Whipple’s return to Amherst. UMass won three games, which was more than it won in two years (2012-13) under Charley Molnar. But the Minutemen were much closer to .500 than some may realize, as this team lost by three points to Colorado and Vanderbilt and fell by a touchdown or less in MAC games against Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio) and Toledo. With 18 starters back, Whipple should have UMass in the mix to play in a bowl in 2015. Quarterback Blake Frohnapfel is one of the best in the Group of 5 ranks, and receiver Tajae Sharpe (85 catches) is back as his top target.

Related: MAC Predictions for 2015