- Don't panic if Ole Miss, Stanford, Texas and Wisconsin get off to rough starts in 2016. They'll bounce back in the second half of the season when they get to the easier part of their schedules.
Louisville began the 2015 season with three straight losses and fell in four of its first six games. Of course college football programs change from one season to the next, but that’s hardly the start one would expect of a team that one year later could finally challenge Clemson and Florida State for the ACC Atlantic Division title. So are the Cardinals getting too much hype this preseason? No, or at least if they are, the best argument against them is certainly not their disappointing start to the 2015 campaign.
Those four losses Louisville took in the first half of last season came to Auburn, Houston, Clemson and Florida State. Though Auburn’s struggles make that season-opening defeat a bit less understandable, the other three only indicate that the 2015 Louisville squad was good to very good but a step below great.
So what does 2015 Louisville have to do with the 2016 season? It’s the disparity between what the Cardinals accomplished in the first half of the season compared to the second half that’s of note. After that 2–4 start, they finished the season with six wins in seven games. Louisville’s performance against one playoff team and two other New Year’s Six teams wasn’t indicative of its overall strength.
That’s destined to be the case for some teams this year, too. Whether because of tough nonconference games or front-loaded conference schedules, four teams could hit setbacks in the opening half of the season only to experience apparent resurgences on the back end. So don’t panic if these teams drop a few games before the end of October—and don’t be surprised if they rise back into contention come November.
There’s no easy trip through the SEC West, but Ole Miss’s draw is certainly not ideal for a team that returns just 10 starters and must break in a new left tackle. If top-ranked offensive tackle recruit Greg Little wins the right to replace Laremy Tunsil (an assumption Ole Miss is attempting to downplay), he’ll need to get up to speed right away. Florida State defensive ends DeMarcus Walker and Josh Sweat await in Week 1, and the Rebels open conference play against Alabama and Georgia. They’ll also have to take trips to Arkansas and LSU by Oct. 22. The defending Sugar Bowl champs should be the better team in their final five games (Auburn, Georgia Southern, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State), but their postseason goals could be significantly diminished by then.
The Cardinal enter 2016 with high expectations as the defending Pac-12 champions and perhaps the conference’s best hope for a playoff berth after coming up just short last year. By midseason, we should have a strong sense of whether Stanford can live up to its hype. The Cardinal face a brutal first half of the season that leaves them with no game in which they can feel fully confident until they host Colorado on Oct. 22. Stanford opens with Kansas State and gets a bye before battles against USC, at UCLA, at Washington, against Washington State and at Notre Dame in successive weeks. The Cardinal will likely be favored in at least half of those games, but all of them definitely will be challenging. That’s a rough way to kick off the season for a team breaking in a new starting quarterback and needing to replace a playmaker like linebacker Blake Martinez on defense. For better or worse, those first six games will shape Stanford’s hopes for a Pac-12 title and a berth in the national semifinals. Losses to divisional rivals Washington or Washington State could be devastating. The only game in the back half of the Cardinal’s schedule that’s likely to impact their standing at the end of the season is a Nov. 12 trip to Oregon.
Things might have to get a bit worse before they get better for the Longhorns, and that’s bad news for Charlie Strong. With Texas, Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn all potentially vying to win Houston coach Tom Herman’s services if they don’t get rebound seasons this fall, each school has a strong incentive to give its current embattled coach a quick hook. An early firing could give the school the upper hand in landing Herman. For Strong, that means a rough start to the season could be disastrous, which makes Texas’s opening slate especially problematic. The Longhorns kick off the season against Notre Dame and open Big 12 play at Oklahoma State and against Oklahoma. They also have a trip to Kansas State and a matchup with Baylor before the end of October. It’s unclear exactly how many wins Strong needs to keep his job, but if Texas approaches November with its bowl eligibility still in jeopardy, that could be enough for athletic director Mike Perrin to take action. If Strong makes it to November, he could be in good shape. Clashes against Texas Tech, West Virginia and Kansas are all winnable before the Longhorns conclude the regular season against TCU.
The sky will appear to fall on Wisconsin when the Badgers reach the mid-point of their Big Ten schedule with a record more closely resembling Purdue’s than a conference title contender’s. By Oct. 22, coach Paul Chryst’s squad could sport a 2–5 mark and be winless in Big Ten play. However, such a fate would hardly indicate that Wisconsin is any worse than we perceive it to be now. In fact, the Badgers could fall to that 2–5 nadir and then close out the regular season on a five-game winning streak to finish 7–5 all without requiring any major reevaluations of their quality. Through a combination of a challenging nonconference opener against LSU and an unfortunate schedule in the top-heavy Big Ten, Wisconsin’s slate is the epitome of imbalance. After that opener against the Tigers, the Badgers get simpler matchups with Akron and Georgia State before diving into a stretch of at Michigan State, at Michigan, vs. Ohio State and at Iowa—the only four Big Ten teams in SI’s preseason Top 25. If Wisconsin can keep its composure amid that brutal stretch, it can still rebound to make a bowl game. But opening the season with five losses in seven games would have to be demoralizing, even given the quality of the competition.