#DearAndy: Which college football teams are poised to rise, fall in 2015?
Everybody needs one more shot of college football before we dive headlong into hoops for the weekend, and the readers came through with some excellent questions.
Here are the questions answered in video form…
• Will Chris Borland’s retirement affect the long-term plans of college football players?
• Is there any way for Ohio State coach Urban Meyer to utilize all three of his experienced quarterbacks?
• Will a Big 12 team make the College Football Playoff?
Read on for more questions and answers…
From @jaredradford: Which teams are poised to see a major increase in wins? Which teams are close to falling off the edge?
The Power Five team that seems most poised to make a jump this year is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys had been consistently good but lost a ton of talent between 2013 and ‘14. (They also lost offensive line coach Joe Wickline to Texas, and he was a huge part of that previous success.) In ‘15, they return eight starters on both the offense and defense from a team that could have packed it in but wound up shocking Oklahoma in Norman and beating Washington in the Cactus Bowl.
Coach Mike Gundy has already declared Mason Rudolph the starting quarterback. He should have fun throwing to David Glidden and Brandon Sheperd, and the idea of a run-heavy package for former starting quarterback J.W. Walsh is intriguing.
This group lost five consecutive games last year, and that isn’t going to happen this year. Also, the Cowboys played Florida State to open the 2014 season. This year’s non-conference schedule includes Central Michigan, Central Arkansas and UT-San Antonio. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Cowboys rack up double-digit wins a year after going 7-6.
There doesn’t appear to be a team that loses so much that it will drop off a cliff the way Auburn did between 2011 and ‘12. But there is one team that has set such a high standard the past three seasons that it will take a great coaching job to keep from stepping back. Florida State is 39-3 since ‘12, but it seems unlikely the Seminoles can keep winning at that pace given how much they lost.
Quarterback Jameis Winston is the biggest departure, but Florida State must also replace four starting offensive linemen, its best receiver, its best tight end, three-fourths of its defensive line and both starting cornerbacks. Even though Jimbo Fisher has kept the Seminoles atop the recruiting rankings and the polls, that’s a lot to replace at once. This doesn’t mean Florida State will suddenly turn into an also-ran. Players all the other top teams wanted will fill all those spots. But it does mean there could be an adjustment period that might give the rest of the ACC a brief window to attempt to catch up.
From @Q_Brunk: Which $4 million man will finish last in the SEC West?
This is the problem with the hypercompetitiveness of the division that has produced five of the past eight national champions. Everyone has invested in winning, but someone still has to lose. When every coach makes at least $4 million per year, the only guarantees are that some really rich guy is going to finish seventh out of seven and some fanbase is going to be righteously ticked off about it.
So who draws the short straw? That’s a tough question. If you watched last season, there wasn’t a ton of difference between the teams. The last-place team (Arkansas) probably should have beaten the first-place team (Alabama) on the day they played, and Mississippi State, Ole Miss and LSU all beat up on one another throughout the season.
Alabama and Ole Miss will have ferocious defenses in 2015, but their offenses remain works in progress. Auburn could have a better offense than it did in ‘14 with Jeremy Johnson taking over at quarterback, but the defense remains a mystery until we see what new coordinator Will Muschamp can do with it. Those three seem the safest bets to stay out of the cellar, so let’s examine the other four.
Chances are the final order of finish in the West will have something to do with which East teams were drawn, as the West remains stronger than the East. But as we saw during bowl season last year, the entire SEC has come back to the pack a bit as programs in other conferences have put together teams that can compete with and beat the SEC’s best. The last-place team in the West will likely be the one with the toughest combination of road games, consecutive conference games and East opponents.
Texas A&M gets Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home, has an open date in the middle of the season (Oct. 10) and draws South Carolina and Vanderbilt from the East. That’s about the best situation an SEC West coach can hope for, so congratulations, Kevin Sumlin, you might be safe.
LSU gets Mississippi State and Auburn in Weeks 2 and 3, so the Tigers had better hope they get their quarterback situation figured out this spring or in camp. LSU’s East draw (South Carolina and Florida) looks fairly manageable, but the Tigers do have a potentially tricky out-of-conference game in late October that I’ll expound upon in the answer to the next question. Still, if LSU can survive that first three weeks mostly intact, it should be fine.
Mississippi State topped the polls for a chunk of last season, which allowed Dan Mullen to complete the $4 million set in the West. But staying in the top half of the division is a challenge. Remember, in 2010, Mullen’s best season prior to ‘14, the Bulldogs finished No. 15 in the country and No. 5 in the West. Vanderbilt rotating off the schedule in favor of Missouri is not ideal, and neither are visits to Auburn and Texas A&M—two teams the Bulldogs beat at home in 2014—in consecutive weeks.
In a three-week span early in the season, Arkansas faces Texas A&M at Jerry World and then travels to Tennessee and Alabama. The Razorbacks’ permanent East opponent, meanwhile, is two-time defending division champ Missouri. The Oct. 17 open date is helpful, but the closing kick of at Ole Miss, at LSU, home vs. Mississippi State and home vs. Missouri is not. Bret Bielema’s program is clearly improving, but he’ll need to do a great job to ensure the Razorbacks don’t spend a third consecutive season at the bottom of the West.
So who finishes last? I have no idea. But that guy can probably drown out the complaints by shoving $100 bills in his ears.
There isn’t a Group of Five team with the combination of returning talent and schedule like Marshall last year. The Thundering Herd’s slate made going undefeated a real possibility, and they nearly pulled it off. The catch was that the schedule was so weak that once Marshall lost, it stood no chance to be the Group of Five’s representative in one of the New Year’s Six bowls.
While there won’t be one team with such an obvious inside track to the Group of Five slot this year, there is a squad that, like Marshall last year, brings back a quarterback capable of posting ridiculous numbers and a lot of talent around him. In fact, it’s the only team that beat Marshall last year.
Western Kentucky beat Marshall 67–66 in overtime and then gave up this touchdown and still won the Bahamas Bowl. Quarterback Brandon Doughty, who threw for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns last year, was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA in December because he suffered season-ending injuries early in the 2011 and ‘12 seasons. Alongside Doughty, the Hilltoppers return 15 other starters as well as a mascot who feasts on humans.
Western Kentucky will likely be the favorite to win Conference USA, but the Hilltoppers face a far more difficult path to 13-0 than Marshall did. They play three Power Five opponents, which is good and bad for Western Kentucky. The good news? Two of those opponents (Vanderbilt and Indiana) are quite beatable. That helps the résumé. The bad news? The Hilltoppers play at LSU on Oct. 24. If not for the Tigers’ open date between Western Kentucky and Alabama, this game would have the TRAP sign flashing already.
Still, even a loss at LSU probably won’t keep the Hilltoppers from a New Year’s Six bowl if they win the rest of their games. That won’t be easy, though. Just ask Marshall, which will visit Bowling Green, Kent., on Nov. 28 looking for revenge.