College football’s 2014 season is officially in the books. The new four-team playoff was a success, and the new postseason format resulted in Ohio State claiming a 42-20 win over Oregon in the national championship. The Buckeyes are the favorites to repeat next season, but winning back-to-back college football national championships isn’t easy. While kickoff for the 2015 season is still months away, it’s never too early to start looking at rosters, depth charts and coaching changes for teams poised to make a jump in the rankings next year.
With a few months to dissect rosters, opinions can change on teams – perhaps a couple of times in the offseason.
What teams have our attention for 2015? Arizona State, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Tennessee get the nod as our top five teams on the rise, but keep a close eye on Arkansas and Michigan next year.
College Football’s Top Five Teams on the Rise for 2015
With only eight returning starters (and just two on defense), most considered 2014 a rebuilding year for Arizona State. The Sun Devils ranked No. 19 in the first Associated Press poll but finished one win away from playing for the Pac-12 Championship for the second year in a row. The Sun Devils have recorded back-to-back seasons of double-digit victories for the first time since 1972-73, and this team could rank among the top 10-15 in the nation in preseason polls. Quarterback Taylor Kelly will be missed, but Mike Bercovici (12 TDs, 4 INTs) has played well when called upon. Outside of getting Bercovici acclimated to being the full-time starter, the offense has to replace top receiver Jaelen Strong and left tackle Jamil Douglas. Strong and Douglas are big losses, but the Sun Devils have a deep stable of running backs, and talented junior college recruit Eric Lauderdale is ready to contribute after a redshirt year. Despite returning only two starters on defense, Arizona State ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in sacks generated (39) and held opponents to 27.9 points per game. There’s plenty of optimism about this group for 2015 with two just senior starters departing. The Sun Devils also have a favorable path to a South Division title, featuring home games against USC, Oregon, Washington and Arizona.
Since reaching the national championship in 2012, Notre Dame is 17-9 in the last two seasons and finished 2014 by losing five out of its last seven games. While those two numbers are reason to doubt the Fighting Irish, there’s a lot to like about this team in 2015. Most of the depth chart is intact on both sides of the ball, and the return of end Ishaq Williams and cornerback KeiVarae Russell should bolster a defense that struggled in the second half of the season. Malik Zaire’s performance (12 of 15, 96 yards, 1 TD and 96 rush yards) in the Music City Bowl was promising, and the young quarterback should enter spring practice as the favorite to take the opening snap of 2015. Regardless of whether it’s Zaire or Everett Golson under center, the supporting cast will be solid. Notre Dame returns its top four statistical receivers, Tarean Folston (889 yards) is back running back, and the offensive line has four starters in place, including standout left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Fixing the defense will be coach Brian Kelly’s top priority this spring, as the Fighting Irish gave up at least 30 points in seven out of their last eight games. On the positive side for Kelly, Notre Dame’s defense was hit hard by injuries and is due for better luck in that department next season. The schedule is tough, but the Fighting Irish has the personnel to be a darkhorse contender for a playoff spot next season.
Under coach Mike Gundy’s watch, Oklahoma State has won at least nine games in five out of the last seven seasons. The Cowboys are coming off a 7-6 mark in 2014, which was no surprise considering the team entered the year with just seven returning starters and lost around 30 seniors from the 2013 squad. After a 5-1 start, Oklahoma State lost five in a row and needed an upset win over Oklahoma in the regular-season finale to reach the postseason. The Cowboys won their bowl game over Washington to finish with a winning record for the ninth consecutive year. While 2014 was a step back in the win column, the arrow is pointing up on Oklahoma State next season. True freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph was pressed into action due to injuries and passed for 853 yards and six touchdowns over the final three games. Rudolph should benefit from a full spring to work as the starter, and the young signal-caller is surrounded by talent at receiver, including five of the top six statistical options from 2014. The biggest concerns on offense remain up front (40 sacks allowed last year) and at running back. The defense has to replace tackles James Castleman and Ofa Hautau and linebacker Josh Furman, but end Emmanuel Ogbah and linebacker Ryan Simmons lead a unit that returns largely intact. And with a team that will be developing and improving as the season progresses in 2015, Oklahoma State should benefit by playing its three toughest games (TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma) at home in Stillwater in November next year.
Georgia is the early favorite in the SEC’s East Division next year, but is Tennessee the biggest threat to the Bulldogs’ championship hopes? It’s certainly possible. The Volunteers are making steady progress under coach Butch Jones, improving their win total by two games from 2013 to 2014. And Jones was able to move the program forward in the win column despite playing 23 true freshmen – the most in the nation – this season. Recruiting is going well for Tennessee, so there’s another group of talented players headed to Knoxville to replenish the roster in time for the 2015 season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd lead the way on offense, and the receiving corps should benefit from a healthy Marquez North. The offensive line was an inexperienced group in 2014 and struggled with five new starters. However, this unit only loses tackle Jacob Gillam and should improve with an offseason to jell as a group. The defense allowed 27.1 points per game in SEC contests last season, but there’s reason to believe this could be one of the most improved groups in the conference next year, especially with the continued development of end Derek Barnett.
Texas A&M’s win total under coach Kevin Sumlin has dropped in back-to-back years after recording an 11-2 mark in 2012. But there’s still plenty to like about the direction of this program, starting with the changes to the coaching staff. Since joining the SEC, Texas A&M has struggled mightily on defense and needs to fix that group to contend in the division. The Aggies took a big step forward on defense with the addition of veteran coordinator John Chavis. “The Chief” engineered some of the SEC’s top defenses in his tenure at LSU, and his experience in developing talent should pay dividends for Texas A&M with a front seven that’s littered with youth. In the first season without Johnny Manziel, the Aggies averaged 35.2 points per game. That number could climb in 2015 with Kyle Allen’s development at quarterback, as well as the return of a talented receiving corps featuring Speedy Noil, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones. With another top 10 recruiting class headed to College Station, the talent level and depth at Texas A&M is only going to get better.
Eight Teams on the Rise - The Next Tier
The Razorbacks nearly made the cut as one of our top five teams on the rise for 2015. In coach Bret Bielema’s second season, Arkansas may have been a year ahead of schedule. The Razorbacks used a powerful ground attack and improved defense to reach the postseason, elevating expectations for eight or nine wins next year. Coordinator Robb Smith has his work cut out on defense with the departure of talented linemen Darius Philon and Trey Flowers. The formula for success on offense won’t change much, but Arkansas will have a new play-caller after the departure of Jim Chaney to Pittsburgh. The offensive line is among the best in the nation, and a healthy Brandon Allen at quarterback made a difference for the Razorbacks in 2014. This team could finish seventh in the SEC West next year, yet rank among the top 20-25 in the nation based on the strength of the division.
The Golden Bears just missed out on a bowl (5-7) after struggling to a 1-11 record in coach Sonny Dykes’ first season (2013). Taking the next step and reaching a bowl should be a reasonable goal for California in 2015, especially since talented quarterback Jared Goff returns after throwing for 3,973 yards and 35 touchdowns. Chris Harper left for the NFL, but the receiving corps isn’t hurting for talent. Running back Daniel Lasco might be the Pac-12’s most underrated player. Fixing the defense remains a work in progress for Dykes and an instant fix after allowing 44.1 points in nine Pac-12 games is unlikely.
Tom Herman was one of the top hires of the 2014-15 coaching carousel, and his background on offense should pay dividends for Houston next season. Junior quarterback Greg Ward recorded at least 350 total yards in back-to-back games to close out the year, and Herman thrived at Ohio State by coaching dual-threat options like Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones. Herman has to restock the receiving corps with the departure of Deontay Greenberry to the NFL, but 1,000-yard rusher Kenneth Farrow is back next year.
The Wildcats fell one win short of reaching the postseason in coach Mark Stoops’ second year. However, optimism is running high in Lexington. Kentucky lost its final six games, but Stoops and his staff have closed the gap between the Wildcats and the rest of the East. Recruiting has improved since Stoops’ arrival, and Kentucky returns a handful of key offensive contributors, including quarterback Patrick Towles, running backs Boom Williams and Braylon Heard, along with receiver Ryan Timmons. The biggest personnel issues for Stoops to address in the spring are on defense. Ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith must be replaced, and safety Ashely Lowery expired his eligibility after recording 48 stops in 2014.
Make no mistake: Michigan has its share of personnel concerns to address for 2015. However, Jim Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor should be worth a couple of victories for the Wolverines. Harbaugh hired an outstanding staff, including former Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. Linebacker Jake Ryan must be replaced, but Durkin’s arrival (and keeping Greg Mattison on staff) should help Michigan field one of the Big Ten’s top defenses. The offense is a work in progress, but this is Harbaugh’s area of expertise. Expect to see some improvement from the Wolverines on that side of the ball in 2015.
The Wolfpack improved their win total by five games from 2013 to 2014. With quarterback Jacoby Brissett and running back Shadrach Thornton returning, NC State could take another step forward in the win column in 2015. There are personnel concerns for coach Dave Doeren, as both starting offensive tackles (Rob Crisp and Tyson Chandler) and key defenders (end Art Norman, tackle Thomas Teal and linebacker Rodman Noel) must be replaced. The receiving corps needs a new go-to target to emerge after Bo Hines transferred after a standout freshman campaign.
With a favorable schedule in place, there was hope in Blacksburg for Virginia Tech to contend for the Coastal Division title. But perhaps those title hopes were a year ahead of schedule. The Hokies were a young team in 2014 and suffered two huge injury setbacks on defense with the loss of cornerback Brandon Facyson and tackle Luther Maddy early in the season. There’s promising talent at the skill positions, but the offense won’t improve unless Michael Brewer cuts down on interceptions (15) and the line provides more protection. A key schedule note for Virginia Tech next season: The Hokies won’t have to play Florida State, Louisville or Clemson in crossover play.
With Marshall losing several key players, Western Kentucky could be the team to beat in C-USA’s East Division. The Hilltoppers went 8-5 in coach Jeff Brohm’s first season and return prolific quarterback Brandon Doughty (49 TDs) and receivers Jared Dangerfield and Taywan Taylor in 2015. The defense allowed 39.9 points per game last season, but only two seniors were listed as starters on the Bahamas Bowl depth chart.