Oct. 24, 2015 was a good time to be a Duke fan. The Blue Devils won a thrilling four-overtime battle with Virginia Tech, which improved them to 6–1 on the season and elevated them to No. 22 in the AP poll. With three wins to begin conference play, Duke’s goal of returning to the ACC title game for the second time in three years appeared in reach. Then, of course, the infamous Miami ending happened. Eight laterals and four refereeing mistakes later, the Blue Devils fell to the Hurricanes and were sent into a tailspin in which they lost four straight games, only pulling up before the end of the regular season with a win over Wake Forest.
This year, some new fan bases will have to deal with the extreme peak and valley of emotions Duke supporters went through in 2015. With schedules that set them up for hot starts only to pummel them later, these four teams are the ones to watch in 2016.
The Gus Bus may get rolling again early in 2016, but the true test of its durability is the final six weeks of the regular season. The Tigers don’t have to leave Auburn until Oct. 8, opening the season with five home games. That stretch includes daunting matchups against Clemson and LSU, but at least Auburn will have home-field advantage as it seeks a monumental upset. The other home games (Arkansas State, Texas A&M and Louisiana-Monroe) are solid opportunities to rebuild confidence after last season’s disappointing 7–6 campaign. The lone road game in the first half of the season, at Mississippi State, is the type of contest a resurgent Tigers program should be able to handle. But even if Gus Malzahn’s squad appears to show signs of getting back on track through the first six games, that positive momentum could quickly dissipate in the season’s closing stretch. The Tigers have to travel to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama, and even a home divisional crossover game against Vanderbilt does not seem as winnable as it would have the past two years. For Malzahn to earn another year on the Plains, he’ll need to capitalize in September and early October and then hang on through November.
A hot start followed by a second-half swoon isn’t exactly new territory for the Bears. Cal won its first five games of the 2015 season before dropping four straight and five of its next six. This season could be even more of a split, and if the Bears aren't bowl eligible by early October, they may have a hard time earning a postseason bid. Each of Cal’s first six games is winnable (vs. Hawaii, at San Diego State, vs. Texas, at Arizona State, vs. Utah and at Oregon State), particularly with Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb taking the reins of the offense from Jared Goff. But if the Bears don’t leave Reser Stadium on Oct. 8 with six wins, they may never get to that threshold. Cal finishes the season vs. Oregon, at USC, vs. Washington, at Washington State, vs. Stanford and vs. UCLA—five teams that all could finish atop their respective divisions. Winning any one of those games would be an upset even if Cal starts the season hot and creeps into the top 25.
A hot start is a relative term, but we could be talking about a Maryland team that is undefeated in early October and possibly 5–1 midway through the season. For a team that won only three games last year, that’d draw huge enthusiasm. However, unless the Terrapins make serious progress in their first year under DJ Durkin, the good times should end by mid-season. Maryland faces the meat of the Big Ten East—Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State—in its final six games and has a difficult trip to Nebraska on Nov. 19. An Oct. 29 showdown at Indiana is winnable, but the Terrapins are unlikely to have the offensive firepower to keep up with the Hoosiers. The only truly likely victory in the second half of the season is a finale at home against Rutgers on Nov. 26.
Whether intentional or not—the Big 12 claims it was not—the conference had the interesting quirk of backloading the schedules of its likely title contenders last season so that they all played each other in November. This made for a thrilling finish in which Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU each entered November in control of its own destiny. That won’t be the case this year; instead of duking it out amongst each other, they may all take turns beating up on Texas Tech. All four schools—each of which made the AP preseason top 25—will play the Red Raiders in their final six games of the season. Kliff Kingbury’s squad also has to take on Texas and travel to Iowa State in the second half of the season. It will make for a likely rough ending to what should seem like a promising start to the year. Texas Tech’s offense is loaded with Patrick Mahomes back at quarterback, so the Red Raiders have the potential to outscore everyone they’ll face through Oct. 15 (Stephen F. Austin, Arizona State, Louisiana Tech, Kansas, Kansas State and West Virginia). But once they meet an offense with the firepower to match theirs—Oklahoma on Oct. 22—their season could quickly crumble.