• Teams like North Carolina, Colorado and Maryland are poised for letdown seasons in 2017.
By Colin Becht
March 14, 2017

College football is, like all sports, a zero-sum game. As SI’s Chris Johnson explained last month, several program are poised for breakthrough or rebound seasons in 2017, rocketing up the standings by increasing their win totals by four, five or even six games over last season. So of course, that means some other programs must undergo an equally precipitous dropoff this fall.

The 2016 season brought crushing falls to some of the biggest programs in college football, including Notre Dame, Oregon and Michigan State. Who could suffer a similar decline in 2017? These five programs seem destined for a dropoff.

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Few programs lose more on offense this off-season than the Tar Heels, who say goodbye to quarterback Mitch Trubisky, top running back Elijah Hood, and top receivers Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard. That’s a huge chunk of North Carolina’s offense, and the quarterback turnover means coordinator Chris Kapilovic must break in a new starter for the second straight off-season. The transition to Trubisky was clear-cut and allowed the Tar Heels offense to not miss a beat. This time, Kapilovic will have to hold a more contested competition. As the ACC expands its depth, particularly in the Coastal Division, North Carolina’s offensive setback could quickly drop the Tar Heels down the standings.

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The problem with stunning breakthroughs like the one Colorado produced last season is that they’re very hard to maintain. The Buffaloes made a massive six-win leap from 2015 to ’16, but even if they don’t drop back to the bottom of the Pac-12 South, they’re likely to regress a bit. Colorado benefited from going 4–1 in games decided by 10 points or less. You can chalk that up to great coaching or clutch play if you want, but history shows teams tend to break roughly even in the long run. With Steven Montez taking over at quarterback and Phillip Lindsay back at running back, the offense should be in decent shape, but just three returning defensive starters spells trouble for a unit that finished 12th in the country in defensive S&P+ rating.

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The D.J. Durkin era got off to a strong start last season, as the Terrapins improved by three wins over their 2015 record to make a bowl game. A return trip to the postseason may prove difficult, though. Maryland must replace starting quarterback Perry Hills, and while Tyrrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager both played a bit last season, neither produced a promising audition. Still, the biggest cause for concern in College Park is a schedule light on winnable games. It begins with an away game at Texas and includes trips to Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State in Big Ten play. Home games against Northwestern, Michigan and the season finale versus Penn State won’t be easy either. Charting a course to three or four wins is pretty simple; anything above that may be out of reach.

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What kind of opening schedule do you want when you’re breaking in a new starting quarterback? Probably not at Northern Illinois, vs. Wake Forest, vs. Notre Dame and at Clemson. Whoever wins the Eagles’ starting QB job, whether it’s Darius Wade (who has starting experience but not since 2015) or Anthony Brown, better rise to the occasion or else the hopes of another season of bowl eligibility could disappear quickly. Life in the ACC Atlantic is never easy, and even a winnable division crossover game against Virginia becomes a little scary when its sandwiched in between Louisville and Florida State. Getting back to seven wins, or even making another bowl game, may be too much to ask.

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Losing P.J. Fleck, the coach whose infectious energy helped 1–11 doormats in 2013 become Group of Five darlings last year, hurts. So does losing the dynamic QB-WR combo that ripped apart MAC defense. So the change and uncertainty surrounding the Broncos program is felt on more than just the sideline. Even if Fleck had stayed, the loss of passer Zach Terrell (69.8% completion rate, 3,533 yards passing, 33 touchdowns, four interception) and receiver Corey Davis (97 catches, 1,500 yards, 19 touchdowns) would have likely dropped Western Michigan down a peg or two. The Broncos are still one of the top programs in the MAC, thanks in large part to Fleck recruiting like a mid-tier Big Ten program, but wins over power conference foes may become a bit more irregular, at least for this fall when Western Michigan opens at USC and at Michigan State.

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