Which 2016 flop teams will rebound and which will flounder?
A two-win team beat a two-win team last weekend, and New Year's Eve broke out.
"You'd have thought we'd won the championship in that locker room," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said after his epically struggling team clubbed Rutgers 49–0 last weekend, finally patching the open wound of the 2016 season. But such is the dynamic for teams searching for something, anything positive in a dreary campaign—Dantonio also likened the victory to crawling out from under a rock—and the Spartans are not entirely alone in that.
For some very prominent programs, the most luminous positive is that 2016 will soon end, and the expectant wait for 2017 can begin. But what do some of college football's biggest disappointments have to look forward to? Here's a quick glance at the fortunes for five such teams, in alphabetical order:
The most fundamental problem goes to the very essence of Mark Dantonio's program: The Spartans have run out six different starting offensive line combinations this season. A team can weather injuries and performance issues in the trenches and not be a train wreck, but such teams usually can't be consistently good. And when the overriding philosophy of an offense is to overpower and bully people along the front, a revolving-door line is especially insidious.
In 2017, Michigan State will replace three of its most regular offensive line starters (Kodi Kieler, Benny McGowan, Miguel Machado) and a sixth-year player (Brandon Clemons) who was a four-game starter at right guard before he was shifted to defense to help bolster depth there. Establishing reliability on the offensive line—and crossing fingers that the injury bug doesn't hit again—is job No. 1 to return to contention and maximize three tailbacks who all should return.
There's then the matter of settling on a quarterback (Brian Lewerke or Damion Terry) and finding him targets: The receivers/tight ends corps will have only one of its current top five pass-catchers back (Donnie Corley, assuming he stays at receiver, since he double-dipped at cornerback against Rutgers). The Spartans need more of the well-regarded receivers in the current freshman class to emerge.
We'll see if defensive tackle Malik McDowell sticks to his preseason top-three-pick-or-bust proclamation; there's otherwise transition either way on all three levels, with some pieces to build on (linebackers Chris Frey, Jon Reschke and Andrew Dowell, defensive linemen Raequan Williams, Josh King and Mike Panasiuk—the latter two of whom have started as true freshmen). But what is now the nation's No. 59 scoring defense (27.1 points per game allowed) needs game-alterers. That will require major leaps from young players, which is a big ask in the Big Ten East.
Overall, a steadied quarterback dynamic and even normal levels of injury attrition should bump Sparty up, but maybe only to the middle of the division.
Perhaps you've heard about the Fighting Irish entering a season with questions at quarterback and on defense? If DeShone Kizer is back, disregard the next few sentences. But if a potential spot high in the first round of the NFL draft lures Kizer away from campus, and if Malik Zaire transfers as many expect, Notre Dame enters 2017 with Brandon Wimbush as the presumed starter. Wimbush has been long hailed as the sort of fleet, big-armed quarterback who is ideal for Brian Kelly's offense; he's also thrown five career passes and, well, every quarterback who has hardly played is the ideal quarterback for a system. But the offensive line, running backs and receivers all could be well-stocked around him, if players who have committed to return do so. (Most notably, mammoth left tackle Mike McGlinchey.)
Meanwhile, once again, the fortunes may rest upon the defense being not awful. Anyone who's made plays even relatively steadily in 2016 will be gone in 2017, with the exception of linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini. Notre Dame should mature in the secondary, but it needs to find a pass rush. Somewhere. Anywhere. And no mega-impact recruit is coming to solve that issue, so it'll have to happen organically, in-house. (Daelin Hayes, perhaps?)
But after defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's firing on Sept. 25, this has been an actually decent unit. If we can assume a little natural growth with experience, and we look at what appears to be a manageable early schedule…it's not a playoff contender in the making, no. But there shouldn't be a reprise of the 2016 calamity, even with a new quarterback.
The situation in Eugene is deeply bad right now, testing how much longer the school will be patient with Mark Helfrich. But neither Phil Knight nor Rob Mullens nor anyone overseeing the Ducks has the option to be anything but forbearing with the roster; there are a lot of fancy gizmos and doodads around the football building, but a machine to bend space and time is not among them, so no one can make this band of players any older than they are. The starting quarterback, Justin Herbert, is a true freshman. Peruse the list of starters in last weekend's atrocity against Stanford, and you find four sophomores and seven freshmen, including four along the offensive line. (This doesn't account for second-leading rusher Tony Brooks-James, a redshirt sophomore who didn't start against the Cardinal.)
The counterargument to the expectation that teams get better with experience is, simply, that untalented players can also just become older untalented players. Well, Oregon's composite national recruiting rankings for the past three seasons are as follows: 21 st in 2014, 16th in 2015, 27th in 2016. Extrapolate from that what you will, as far what talent is on hand, and how much it can do with the proper nurturing.
Whoever runs the defense must find a way to create more disruption. Oregon is tied for 92 nd in the country in turnover margin and is giving up a staggering 48.2% of third-down conversions. The current team leaders in tackles for loss (freshman linebacker Troy Dye, with 12) and interceptions (freshman safety Brendan Schooler, with four) are back. But two playmakers won't cut it.
The current batch of 2017 recruiting commitments features just one top-100 defender, cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, so if there are any breakthrough front seven playmakers next fall, they're already on campus. Oregon's room for growth, on many levels, seems self-evident. It's less clear how precipitous the growth will be, especially on the defensive side.
This is maybe an exercise in redundancy because it seems the questions revolve less around what personnel the Longhorns have and more around what the coaches are doing with said personnel. But it's worth noting that the Texas 2017 offense could be breathtaking, if the system remains either in part or in whole, depending on the coaching transition.
Presumably there will be the need for a new running back; it's difficult to foresee D'Onta Foreman racking up 1,600 yards (and counting) and returning for his senior season. Stranger things have happened. But there's a sophomore (Chris Warren III) and a freshman (Kyle Porter) who have combined for 101 carries in 2016, so semi-seasoned replacements are available. No replacement is needed at quarterback, where Shane Buechele will have an off-season to truly dig in, while seven of the current top eight pass-catchers on the team also return.
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Likewise there's material to work with on defense. Malik Jefferson is hooked for at least one more year thanks to the NFL draft rules, and Breckyn Hager, the team leader in tackles for loss (nine) and sacks (five), is just a sophomore as well. Only two seniors, in fact, started in Texas's loss to West Virginia last weekend. If the consensus that Charlie Strong assuming defensive play-calling duties has stanched the early season disarray, then it's not a huge leap in logic to suggest a halfway decent defensive coordinator—whomever he is in 2017—could put the talent on hand to good use.
There's only one top-100 defensive recruit currently committed for the 2017 recruiting haul—defensive end Lagaryonn Carson—so there's no huge wave of help coming, at least as the class currently stands. How far Texas is from a chase at a Big 12 title basically revolves around how much talent you think Strong has brought in, whether he gets to coach it next year or not. On paper—as ever with Texas—things could be a lot worse going into 2017.
Assessing the Bruins' prospects goes beyond the ability of Josh Rosen to throw a football well, which may be just enough to prevent anyone from considering them a breakthrough candidate yet again in 2017. In other words: If the quarterback's health was the only worry for next fall, UCLA might be in good shape. Presumably, Rosen will heal. Presumably, he'll play well when at 100%. And from the offensive line that started last weekend against Oregon State, anyway, only one starter departs. The top three running backs and top two receivers should be back, too.
The problem is those top three running backs have averaged an unimpressive 3.6 yards per carry this year and that offensive line has yielded 21 sacks, which is decidedly middle-of-the-pack nationally. All of this suggests there is work to be done to improve in the trenches to achieve better balance and protect that valuable asset at quarterback. It's a smart play to rely on Rosen's arm when it's at full capacity; it's even smarter to set up an offense so the Bruins don't always have to rely on that arm.
Then there's the matter of losing half, or more, of the starters from an already unimposing defense. UCLA is assured of losing its most impactful front seven player (Takkarist McKinley and his 10 sacks to date in 2016) and it is not assured that defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes will spend another year on campus. Linebacker Kenny Young (7.5 tackles for loss) and defensive linemen Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Rick Wade are solid pieces to build on, and the incoming freshman class does feature five-star defensive end Jaelan Phillips, a national top-25 prospect.
In a pass-happy league, the Bruins rank sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense, but only half the starting secondary will be back in 2017. It's possible the questions about the defense outpace the worries over Rosen's arm, at least until next fall opens with a visit from a likely retooled Texas A&M.