College football’s 2015 season ended in thrilling fashion, as Alabama edged Clemson for the national championship on Jan. 11. Even though the 2015 season just ended, it’s never too early to start thinking about 2016 and examine some of the teams poised to show improvement in the win column. Michigan, Florida State and Tennessee weren’t in the playoff picture last season, but all three could be a factor in 2016. The Wolverines are poised to take another step forward in coach Jim Harbaugh’s second season, the Volunteers are the favorite to win the SEC East, while the gap between Clemson and Florida State in the ACC Atlantic isn’t as wide as some may think.
With a few months to dissect rosters, opinions can change on teams – perhaps a couple of times in the offseason. Additionally, unexpected roster attrition, late coordinator changes or injuries can all change the outlook on how teams are viewed this offseason.
There’s a long ways to go until the 2016 season officially begins, but here are 10 teams we think are on the rise for next season.
College Football’s Top 10 Teams on the Rise for 2016
After a 27-1 mark from 2013-14 and a NFL Draft record with 29 players selected over a three-year span, a small step back in the win column was expected for Florida State in 2015. However, the Seminoles still finished 10-3 – with one of those losses coming on an unlucky blocked field goal return for a touchdown against Georgia Tech – and played in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Houston. Coach Jimbo Fisher’s team has reloaded and is poised to challenge Clemson for the ACC title and a playoff berth next year. Running back Dalvin Cook leads the way on offense, and the offensive line returns standout left tackle Roderick Johnson. Development at receiver and the quarterback battle are Fisher’s biggest question marks on offense. The defense finished second in the ACC by limiting opponents to 4.68 yards per play in 2015 and returns freshmen standouts Josh Sweat (DE) and Derwin James (safety) and All-America candidate DeMarcus Walker. The schedule also breaks in Florida State’s favor. Clemson, Florida and North Carolina visit Doak Campbell Stadium in 2016.
Tom Herman’s arrival as Houston’s head coach propelled the Cougars to one of the best seasons (13-1) in program history. Herman’s encore could be just as successful, as Houston should be the top team from the Group of 5 conferences and ranked in the 10-15 range in most preseason polls for 2016. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. leads an explosive offense, but he will have to find a new go-to receiver after Demarcus Ayers left for the NFL, and go-to option at running back after Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson expired their eligibility. The Cougars may ask their offense to shoulder more of the load next season with a defense losing a few key pieces from a unit that limited opponents to 20.7 points per game in 2015. Standout cornerback William Jackson III, linebacker Elandon Roberts and safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart are four big losses for coordinator Todd Orlando. After scoring huge wins over Power 5 teams Florida State, Louisville and Vanderbilt last season, the Cougars will have at least two more opportunities next fall with a neutral site matchup against Oklahoma to start the year, followed by a home game against Louisville in late November.
The ACC’s Atlantic Division will be top heavy next year, as Florida State and Clemson should be in contention for a playoff spot, while Louisville is poised to build off an 8-5 record in 2015. The Cardinals won six out of their last seven games last season, including a 27-21 win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl and a 38-24 victory over rival Kentucky. Led by dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson, the offense is poised for a breakout season in 2016. Jackson’s rushing ability is a huge asset for an offense looking for the right pieces up front, and this team returns every major contributor at receiver and running back. Linebacker James Burgess and ends Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei are big losses, but the defense returns largely intact. Linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields will be two of the best in the ACC at their position in 2016, while safety Josh Harvey-Clemons is back after a solid performance in the Music City Bowl. Louisville’s schedule is favorable for a run at 10 wins, including home games against Florida State and Kentucky, along with favorable crossover contests in league play against Duke and Virginia.
Are the Hurricanes ready to take a step forward and finally win the ACC’s Coastal Division? It certainly seems that way. Hiring Mark Richt as the program’s new coach to replace Al Golden was a step in the right direction, and Richt has assembled a solid staff for recruiting and player development. New defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski and coordinator Manny Diaz are key pickups for a defense that’s ranked 10th or worse in the ACC in points allowed per game in three out of the last four seasons. Richt plans to have a prominent role in the offense, and junior quarterback Brad Kaaya is poised for his best season in Coral Gables. Kaaya is surrounded by playmakers at receiver and one of the ACC’s top backfields with the return of Joseph Yearby and Mark Walton. Road trips to Virginia Tech and Notre Dame dot the schedule for Richt’s debut, while the Hurricanes have a favorable draw at home with Florida State and North Carolina visiting Sun Life Stadium.
It’s only a matter of time before Jim Harbaugh has Michigan in the mix for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines finished 10-3 in Harbaugh’s debut and closed the year on a high note by dominating Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl. Surpassing the 10-win mark in 2016 is realistic, but Harbaugh has to find a new quarterback to replace Jake Rudock and continue to develop a running game that averaged 4.19 yards per carry last season. Regardless of who steps in at quarterback, the Wolverines should have a solid group of targets in the passing game with the return of tight end Jake Butt and receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. The offensive line returns four starters, including All-Big Ten selection Erik Magnuson. New defensive coordinator Don Brown was one of the top assistant hires of the offseason, and the Wolverines return one of the Big Ten’s top defensive lines and secondary groups in 2016. There’s a good chance three road dates – at Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State – decide just how high Michigan can climb in next year’s playoff picture.
It may come as a surprise to some to see Nebraska mentioned in this space. Despite a 6-7 record in coach Mike Riley’s debut, things are looking up for the Cornhuskers. This team finished 2015 with momentum after a win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl and is due for better luck next fall. Nebraska’s minus-12 turnover margin played a huge role in why this team lost six games by eight points or less. Pushing the turnover margin to even or in the positive category could net an improvement of a couple of games in the win column. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong has to take better care of the ball, but a second offseason under Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf should help the senior have a better grasp of the offense. The biggest concern for Riley is the defense, which must replace standout tackle Maliek Collins and needs overall improvement after giving up 5.88 yards per play in 2015. The schedule has its share of tough games next fall, but Nebraska hosts Oregon in non-conference play and catches Maryland and Indiana in Big Ten crossover action.
After a 6-18 start to his tenure at South Florida, coach Willie Taggart needed to show signs of progress in 2015. Mission accomplished. The Bulls made a four-game improvement in the win column with an 8-5 final mark and an appearance in the Miami Beach Bowl. South Florida fell just short of winning the American Athletic Conference’s East Division and won seven out of their last nine games in 2015. Taggart will have a few voids to address this offseason, as South Florida needs to retool a bit in the trenches, and standout safety Jamie Byrd has expired his eligibility. However, the Bulls return quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack, and the schedule in conference play (no Houston) is manageable. Taggart has South Florida on the right track and there’s also another solid recruiting class on the way to Tampa.
The Volunteers are primed to take another step forward in 2016. After a 5-7 debut in 2013, coach Butch Jones has improved Tennessee’s win total by two games in each of the last two seasons. The best team of Jones’ tenure is in place next fall, starting on offense with the return of quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd. Four starters are back on an improving offensive line, but the receiving corps has to improve after the passing attack generated only seven plays of 40 yards or more in 2015. Tennessee ranked fifth in the SEC in scoring defense last year and should be one of the best in the league with the addition of new coordinator Bob Shoop. This unit returns rising stars Kahlil McKenzie (DT) and linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., while linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin turned down the NFL for one more season in Knoxville. Tennessee should be the favorite in the SEC East Division next year.
With Stanford losing a few key players from its Pac-12 Championship team, and the uncertainty at Oregon, Washington should contend for the conference title next year. The Huskies are 15-12 under coach Chris Petersen and closed 2015 by winning four out of their last six games. Additionally, four out of the team’s six losses came by 10 points or less, including a six-point defeat to Oregon in mid-October. Most of this team’s core returns for 2016, starting with quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. The defense loses a couple of starters but returns largely intact. The secondary could be one of the best in the nation, while linebacker Azeem Victor is a rising star in the front seven. Washington also hosts Stanford, USC and Arizona State next fall.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see two of the Pac-12’s best teams reside in the state of Washington next year. Washington is a sleeper candidate to win the league next season, and Washington State is coming off its best season (9-4) under coach Mike Leach. Offense – as expected with a Mike Leach-coached team – leads the way for the Cougars. Quarterback Luke Falk threw for 38 scores last season and returns a loaded receiving corps, including Gabe Marks (104 catches in 2015) and River Cracraft (53 receptions). Replacing the left side of the offensive line is Leach’s biggest priority in spring ball. The defense took a step forward in Alex Grinch’s first season as the coordinator. After giving up 38.6 points a game in 2014, the Cougars cut that total to 27.7 in 2015. Linemen Destiny Vaeao and Darry Paulo are big losses, but there are reasons to be optimistic on this side of the ball. Cornerback Darrien Molton and safety Shalom Luani are two building blocks in the secondary, while linebacker Peyton Pelluer returns after leading the team with 101 stops in 2015. The Cougars also have a favorable conference schedule, with UCLA, Arizona, Washington and Oregon visiting Martin Stadium next fall.
Five Group of 5 Teams to Watch
The Mountaineers should be the early favorite to win the Sun Belt next season. Coach Scott Satterfield’s team finished 11-2 in 2015 after a victory over Ohio in the Camellia Bowl, with most of this team’s core set to return in 2016. Quarterback Taylor Lamb leads the way on offense, with freshman Jalin Moore a rising star to watch at running back.
San Diego State
A rebound year is expected for Boise State next fall, but don’t forget about San Diego State as a team that could push Houston for the top spot among Group of 5 teams. The Aztecs return most of their core from a team that quietly won 11 games last season, including running back Donnel Pumphrey, safety Malik Smith and cornerback Damontae Kazee.
The Golden Eagles are coming off their best season (9-5) under third-year coach Todd Monken. Standout receiver Mike Thomas will be missed, but quarterback Nick Mullens is back and is a big reason why Southern Miss should get consideration as the favorite in Conference USA next fall.
New coach Jason Candle should keep the Rockets near the top of the MAC next season. Running back Kareem Hunt is one of the MAC’s top playmakers, and left tackle Storm Norton anchors a solid offensive line. The biggest question marks for Candle in 2016 revolve around the defense.
P.J. Fleck has guided Western Michigan to back-to-back 8-5 seasons, and the Broncos are coming off the first bowl win in program history. The pieces are in place for Western Michigan to win the MAC West next fall. Toledo and Northern Illinois visit Kalamazoo, and the offense is primed for another big season with the return of quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis.