Every college football season brings a few surprises. 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 are quick to 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 2013 season is still a few months away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about which teams will be some of the most improved in the nation.
Auburn had a disastrous 2012 season under Gene Chizik, but new coach Gus Malzahn should have the Tigers back in a bowl game. Another team that should see an improvement in its win total is Maryland. The Terrapins bring back only eight starters, but improved health at quarterback should help Randy Edsall’s team return to the postseason.
While Auburn and Maryland are two teams that should showcase their improvement in the win column, Colorado’s will come in a different form. For the Buffaloes, two victories in 2013 will represent improvement from last season. More importantly, this team under first-year head coach Mike MacIntyre should be considerably more competitive in Pac-12 play this fall.
College Football's Top 10 Most-Improved Teams for 2013
2012 Record: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 9
What Went Wrong Last Year: Everything. After Gus Malzahn left to be the head coach at Arkansas State, Gene Chizik hired Scot Loeffler to coordinate the offense. The results were disastrous. Largely due to being miscast in a pro-style offense with spread personnel, the Tigers ranked last in the SEC by averaging 305 yards per game. The offense wasn’t solely to blame, as the defense ranked 13th in the SEC in yards allowed.
Why the Tigers Will Be Better: There’s talent in the program. Over the last eight years, Auburn has an average rank of 12th nationally in Athlon’s team recruiting rankings. Malzahn’s return should help spark an offense that was among the worst in the nation last year, especially as the Tigers return to a spread attack. Quarterback is still a question mark, but the offense has a capable one-two punch at running back with Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne, and the offensive line returns four starters. New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was one of the offseason’s top assistant hires and three talented incoming freshmen will bolster the defensive line.
Athlon’s 2013 Projection for Auburn: 6-6, 2-6 SEC
With home games against Washington State, Arkansas State, Western Carolina and FAU, Auburn should be 4-0 in non-conference play. Games at LSU and Texas A&M, along with home dates against Georgia and Alabama, are likely losses. However, matchups with Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Tennessee are winnable.
2012 Record: 1-11 (1-8 Pac-12)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7
What Went Wrong Last Year: Colorado’s struggles started in spring practice, losing receiver Paul Richardson to a torn ACL. Without Richardson, the passing attack lacked its best playmaker and one of the Pac-12’s top receivers. The Buffaloes never found any consistency at quarterback, and the offensive line allowed 4.2 sacks a game. The defense was a disaster, allowing 46 points a game – the worst FBS performance in scoring defense since 2008. Due to injuries and overall struggles, Colorado was forced to play a handful of young players last season, but the experienced gained through the struggles should help this team in 2013 and beyond.
Why the Buffaloes Will Be Better: Simply, it’s hard for Colorado to be any worse. But there are signs the Buffaloes are moving in the right direction. New coach Mike MacIntyre was one of the top 10 hires of the offseason and should eventually return the Buffaloes to the postseason. Quarterback play is a question mark, but MacIntyre and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren played a key role in David Fales’ development at San Jose State. Running back Christian Powell had a solid freshman year, rushing for 691 yards and seven touchdowns. His return, along with Paul Richardson’s recovery from a torn ACL, should give the winner of the quarterback battle more weapons to work with in 2013. And while the defense could rank near the bottom of the Pac-12 again, it can’t be as bad as it was in 2012.
Athlon’s 2013 Projection for Colorado: 3-9, 1-8 Pac-12
The win total may not increase by much, but the Buffaloes will be a better team in 2013. Colorado State and Central Arkansas are must-wins to start the season, with a home game against California and a date at Utah representing possible upsets in Pac-12 play. Colorado isn’t likely to make a huge jump in wins, but the Buffaloes should be more competitive and will get better as the year progresses. If Connor Wood struggles early, how quickly will MacIntyre turn to incoming freshman Sefo Liufau at quarterback?
2012 Record: 4-8 (3-5 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense – 10, Defense – 7
What Went Wrong Last Year: Considering Indiana improved its win total by three games from 2011 to '12, it’s hard to say things went drastically wrong. Instead, the Hoosiers showed signs of progress, leading the Big Ten in passing offense (311.2 yards per game) and coming within a couple of plays of making a bowl game (lost four games by four points or fewer). While the offense averaged 30.8 points a game, the defense was the team’s Achilles' heel. The Hoosiers allowed 463.5 yards a game and ranked last in the conference in points allowed.
Why the Hoosiers Will Be Better: Indiana’s performance on offense is even more impressive when you consider starting quarterback Tre Roberson was lost in the second game of the season with a leg injury. With Roberson back in the mix, the Hoosiers could be even more deadly on offense, especially with one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps and an improving offensive line. While the defense won’t take a huge step forward in 2013, seven starters are back, and this unit has more upperclassmen with game experience than it did in 2012.
Athlon’s 2013 Projection for Indiana: 6-6, 3-5 Big Ten
Kevin Wilson certainly has Indiana moving in the right direction. After some close calls last year, the Hoosiers should be able to get over the hump and make a bowl game in 2013. The offense will be one of the most explosive in the Big Ten, and slight improvement should be expected on defense. The non-conference schedule isn’t easy, but Navy, Bowling Green and Indiana State should be victories, with Missouri visiting Bloomington in a key swing game. The Hoosiers have tough crossover games in Big Ten play with road trips to Michigan and Michigan State. However, Indiana hosts Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue, which should be three opportunities for wins in conference games.
2012 Record: 5-7 (4-4 C-USA)
Returning Starters:Offense –7, Defense –7
What Went Wrong Last Year: Defense. The Thundering Herd averaged 40.9 points a game, yet failed to make a bowl game in Doc Holliday’s third season. The defense was one of the worst in the nation, allowing 43.1 points a game and ranking 101st nationally in yards allowed. Marshall struggled in close games, losing four games by a touchdown or less.
Why the Thundering Herd Will Be Better: Considering Marshall outgained its opponents in Conference USA play by 72.2 yards a game last year and was a minus-2 in turnover margin, the Thundering Herd were a little unlucky in 2012. Assuming the offense performs at a high level once again, Marshall should contend for the C-USA East title. Quarterback Rakeem Cato returns, and the receiving corps is bolstered by the addition of Penn State transfers Devon Smith and Shawney Kersey. New coordinator Chuck Heater should be a good addition for the defense, and that unit returns seven starters. With a new and improved scheme and most of the core returning for 2013, Marshall won’t be as bad on defense this fall.
Athlon’s 2013 Projection for Marshall: 8-5, 6-2 C-USA
With UCF, SMU, Memphis and Houston leaving for the American Athletic Conference, Marshall’s path to the C-USA title got a little easier. MTSU, FAU and FIU will join the Thundering Herd in the East Division, with FAU and FIU ranking near the bottom of Athlon’s rankings for 2013. Another scheduling factor working in Marshall’s favor: East Carolina visits Huntington on Nov. 29.
2012 Record: 4-8 (2-6 ACC)
Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 4
What Went Wrong Last Year: Injuries. The Terrapins lost four quarterbacks to injury last season and were forced to finish the year with converted linebacker Shawn Petty as their signal-caller. Not having a consistent passing attack hindered Maryland in close games, as it lost four contests by a touchdown or less and finished last in the ACC in total offense.
Why the Terrapins Will Be Better: Randy Edsall’s first season was a disaster. But despite the injuries at quarterback, the second year brought a two-game improvement in the win column and a handful of close losses. The Terrapins are in better shape at quarterback for 2013, as C.J. Brown is back from a torn ACL, and Ricardo Young is eligible after transferring from New Mexico. Stefon Diggs is one of the nation’s best all-around threats, and the offense features some promising playmakers at running back in Wes Brown and Brandon Ross. The defense finished third in the ACC and 21st nationally in yards allowed but must replace seven starters in 2013.
Athlon’s 2013 Projection for Maryland: 7-5, 4-4 ACC
The defense needs to be rebuilt, but Maryland has a favorable schedule and should return to a bowl game for the first time since 2010. The Terrapins should start the year 3-0 with matchups against FIU, Old Dominion and Connecticut, with West Virginia the swing game of their non-conference slate. Road games against Florida State and Virginia Tech are likely losses, but Maryland doesn’t play North Carolina, Georgia Tech or Miami in crossover play and hosts Boston College, Syracuse and Virginia – three crucial swing games – in College Park.
2012 Record: 7-5 (5-3 ACC)
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 4
What Went Wrong: Off-the-field distractions and NCAA investigations aside, Miami’s biggest issue last year was on defense. And frankly, it wasn’t pretty. The Hurricanes ranked last in the ACC against the run, as well as both yards and points allowed. Miami gave up 366 points last year, which was the most in school history.
Why the Hurricanes Will Be Better: With eight starters back, the Hurricanes should have one of the best offenses in the ACC. Adapting to new coordinator James Coley will be a challenge for quarterback Stephen Morris, but running back Duke Johnson should be in the mix for All-American honors, and the offensive line is solid with all five starters returning. The defense still has issues, but there’s no way this unit can be as bad as it was last year.
Athlon’s 2013 Projection for Miami: 9-4, 6-2 ACC
Miami hasn’t had a double-digit win season since 2003 and is just 20-17 over the last three years. There’s no question the program has slipped recently, but the Hurricanes seem to be trending up entering 2013. Assuming there’s a seamless transition from Jedd Fisch to James Coley at offensive coordinator, Miami’s offense should exceed last year’s totals. The defense is in need of major repair, but there are pieces to build around, including end Anthony Chickillo, linebacker Denzel Perryman and safety Deon Bush. The schedule is more favorable in 2013, especially since Notre Dame and Kansas State are gone from the non-conference slate. With Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech traveling to Miami this year, the ACC Coastal title will likely run through Sun Life Stadium.
2012 Record: 3-9 (1-6 Big East)
Returning Starters:Offense – 3, Defense – 7
What Went Wrong Last Year: Just like Auburn: Everything. Despite successful stints at Connecticut and East Carolina, Skip Holtz was never able to push the right buttons at South Florida. The Bulls lost five games by a touchdown or less in 2011 and never seemed to recover for '12. South Florida won its first two games and then lost six consecutive matchups before a win over Connecticut in early November. An injury to quarterback B.J. Daniels slowed the offense, and despite having seven starters back on defense, the Bulls finished seventh in the Big East in yards and points allowed last season.
Why the Bulls Will Be Better: South Florida’s decision to hire Willie Taggart from Western Kentucky was one of the best coaching moves of the offseason. Taggart helped to turn the Hilltoppers from a struggling FBS program to a bowl team in 2012. It will take some time for Taggart to rebuild the depth on the Bulls' roster, but he has some pieces to work with in 2013. The offense received a boost with the transfer of Penn State quarterback Steven Bench, and the defense will be bolstered by former Notre Dame defensive end Aaron Lynch, who is eligible after sitting out last season as a result of transfer rules. South Florida will also have help from a weaker schedule, which replaces Florida State, Syracuse and Pittsburgh – three losses last year – with FAU, SMU and Memphis – three very winnable games.
Athlon’s 2013 Projection for South Florida: 7-5, 5-3 American
Taggart’s arrival is just what South Florida needs. The Bradenton, Fla., native will bring some much-needed energy and toughness to the program. The Bulls have a ways to go in order to move to the top of the American Athletic Conference. However, the pieces are in place to make a trip to a bowl game, especially with a more favorable conference slate, as well as two non-conference wins against McNeese State and FAU.
2012 Record:7-6 (4-5 Big 12)
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 9
What Went Wrong Last Year: Considering all that transpired for TCU, it’s hard to say anything went wrong. The Horned Frogs made a successful transition from a non-BCS league to one of the toughest conferences in college football. And despite the loss of quarterback Casey Pachall before midseason, TCU went 7-6 and won at Texas for the first time since 1967. There were a couple of areas of concern for the Horned Frogs, as the rushing attack ranked eighth in the Big 12, and the offensive line allowed 2.2 sacks a game.
Why the Horned Frogs Will Be Better: Now that TCU has a year under its belt in the Big 12, it should be more familiar with its opponents and tendencies. Add the fact coach Gary Patterson is one of the best in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs will be a tougher out for the rest of the conference. Pachall is back under center and should help to bolster TCU’s passing attack. Although the rushing attack was a concern last year, B.J. Catalon turned in a solid freshman campaign, Waymon James is back from injury, and Nebraska transfer Aaron Green is eligible after sitting out a year due to NCAA rules. The defense must replace end Stansly Maponga, but nine starters are back, including likely All-American end Devonte Fields.
Athlon’s 2013 Projection for TCU: 8-4, 6-3 Big 12
It’s possible TCU will be a better team, but it could still struggle to improve its win total. The Horned Frogs have a challenging schedule, which features a non-conference game against LSU, along with road trips to Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Assuming Pachall quickly recaptures the form that watched him throw for 2,921 yards in 2011, TCU’s offense should easily improve on last year’s numbers. Even though Fields will miss the first two games of the year due to a suspension, he should be one of the Big 12’s top defenders. A difficult schedule presents a challenge for TCU. But Patterson and his staff have proven over and over again they are up to the task.
2012 Record: 7-6 (5-4 Pac-12)
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 7
What Went Wrong Last Year: The Trojans were widely considered one of the top five teams in the nation last preseason. Yet, USC finished with a disappointing 7-6 mark, which included a 1-5 stretch to close the season. An injury to starting quarterback Matt Barkley slowed the offense late in the year, but the Trojans’ biggest problem was a defense that ranked eighth in the Pac-12 against the run and allowed 394 yards per game.
Why the Trojans Will Be Better: Despite the loss of Barkley and center Khaled Holmes, USC should be solid on offense. Whether it's Max Wittek, Cody Kessler or Max Browne starting at quarterback, the passing attack will be fine, largely due to the return of junior receiver Marqise Lee and tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble. And there’s depth at running back with Silas Redd, Justin Davis and Ty Isaac competing for carries. New coordinator Clancy Pendergast should be a good fit for a defense that returns seven starters. Pendergast plans on implementing a 5-2 scheme, which will take advantage of USC’s talent on the defensive line.
Athlon’s 2013 Projection for USC: 9-4, 6-3 Pac-12
Could this be it for coach Lane Kiffin? If USC goes 7-5 again, the calls for a coaching change will only get louder. However, there’s reason for optimism in 2013. The Trojans outgained their opponents by 69.7 yards per game last year but struggled in the turnover department. The schedule is more favorable this season, as USC misses Oregon and hosts UCLA and Stanford. Winning a division title is certainly within reach. But USC needs to settle on a quarterback, as well as continue to improve its offensive line and secondary as the year progresses.
2012 Record: 3-9 (1-8 Pac-12)
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 8
What Went Wrong Last Year: The transition from Paul Wulff to Mike Leach didn’t go exactly as planned. The Cougars scored two surprisingly close non-conference wins against UNLV and Eastern Washington and upset rival Washington in the season finale to finish 3-9. Leach was supposed to inject some life into the offense, but the Cougars finished 94th nationally in yards per game and 106th in points. The defense shared in the struggles, allowing 425.9 yards per contest. The problems for Washington State were even deeper than the stats on offense and defense showed, as the offensive line allowed 4.8 sacks a game, and the Cougars ranked 101st nationally in turnover margin.
Why the Cougars Will Be Better: As with any coach entering his second season, you expect to see some type of uptick in production with more familiarity when it comes to schemes. That should hold true for Washington State, especially with Leach calling the plays. The Cougars have one of the nation’s worst rushing attacks, but having another offseason to allow quarterback Connor Halliday to work as the No. 1 passer should help this offense. Halliday will also have plenty of options to choose from a stocked receiving corps. With eight starters back on defense, Washington State should be able push for a finish in the top six of the Pac-12 in total and scoring defense. Although the Cougars lost nine games last year, three of those – including matchups against Stanford and UCLA – came by eight points or less.
Athlon’s 2013 Projection for Washington State: 4-8, 2-7 Pac-12
Just like last season, Washington State should go 2-1 in non-conference play. However, Wazzu's Pac-12 schedule sets up more favorably. The Cougars do have to travel to California, but the Golden Bears – much like Washington State – are rebuilding. With home games against Oregon State and Utah visiting Pullman, Mike Leach’s team will have a chance to pull an upset or two. Progress and winning games may take a little longer than most expected for Leach. However, Washington State seems to be on the right track and should be more competitive in the Pac-12 this year.
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