Alabama claimed college football’s ultimate prize last season, but it’s hard to look at what Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Northwestern and Washington State accomplished and feel disappointed. Those five teams didn't win a national championship—and none of them even won a conference title—but each made a tremendous leap up the standings, improving by five victories or more.
Among squads in the Power 5 conferences, these five made the largest one-year improvements in their win totals in 2015. Their progress is commendable, but now comes the next, perhaps more difficult, stretch: maintaining it. This fall each of these teams could build upon their success or regress to the mean by faltering—perhaps not as far they climbed last season but a setback nonetheless.
So, which of these five teams can match or exceed last year’s breakthrough and which will fall back down to Earth? Let’s play Buy/Sell/Hold to gauge each program’s chances.
North Carolina: Sell
The Tar Heels’ transcendent season didn’t end the way they hoped, as they dropped the ACC championship game to Clemson and the Russell Athletic Bowl to Baylor to end their season. Still, a five-win jump to 11 victories, North Carolina’s most since 1997, is nothing to scoff at. However, it feels likely to be the Tar Heels’ ceiling, at least for now.
Any further progress would likely require winning the ACC title, and with Clemson reloading for another run, Florida State ready to jump back into the national championship race and Louisville the apparent cusp of its a breakthrough, the conference championship appears unlikely to swing back to the ACC Coastal this year.
As for maintaining last year’s growth, that’s a difficult ask, too. As we discussed last week, smart coaching hires throughout the conference appear to have several ACC programs well positioned to improve. Any progress resulting from Justin Fuente’s hire at Virginia Tech, Bronco Mendenhall’s arrival at Virginia or Mark Richt’s move to Miami has to come at the expense of someone, and all three play North Carolina in consecutive weeks in October. A better overall division plus the addition of Georgia to the Tar Heels’ nonconference schedule make their path to 11 wins much more arduous in 2016.
North Carolina may have confidence in quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s ability to replace Marquise Williams, the return of running back Elijah Hood, and Gene Chizik's progress with a formerly porous defense, but another 11-win season still feels unrealistic.
Jim Harbaugh fueled Michigan’s hype entering the 2015 season; the ’16 hype has a lot more to it than just the attention-drawing coach. The Wolverines improved from 5–7 to 10–3 in Harbaugh’s first year and were a botched game-sealing punt away from an even better season.
There’s a lot to like about this year’s team. An inconsistent offensive line should be more stable with four of five starters returning. The defensive line, led by ends Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton and tackle Ryan Glasgow (28 tackles for loss, 13 sacks combined)—not to mention No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary—promises to be a strength of the defense. And do-it-all sensation Jabrill Peppers’s move to linebacker shores up one area of weakness.
With Ohio State losing nine players early to the NFL draft this off-season and Michigan State seeking a replacement for veteran quarterback Connor Cook, there may not be a better time for Michigan to make a move to the top of the Big Ten.
Given just how surprising Iowa’s run to 12 wins was last year, it’d be easy to assume gravity was destined to kick in for the Hawkeyes this season. But looking at Iowa on paper, there’s little reason to expect much of a dropoff. Iowa returns only five starters on offense and has some key questions to answer on the line, but quarterback C.J. Beathard is back after completing 61.6% of his passes for 2,809 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions last season. And he’ll be supported by the duo of LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley at running back and Matt VandeBerg at receiver.
It’s the Hawkeyes’ defense that should set the tone for another big season. Cornerback Desmond King returns after leading the Power 5 with eight interceptions last season, as does linebacker Josey Jewell, a second-team All-Big Ten selection and the team leader in tackles. The denial of Drew Ott’s medical hardship waiver is a blow to the defensive line, but the Hawkeyes got used to playing without Ott for most of last season.
Iowa benefited last year from a conference schedule that didn’t include Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan, all of which play in the Big Ten East. With the conference’s switch to a nine-game conference schedule this year, the Hawkeyes didn’t get quite so lucky, drawing a date with Michigan on Nov. 12. Still, one out of three isn’t bad, especially with the Wolverines coming to Kinnick Stadium. Iowa won’t sneak up on the college football world like it did in 2015, but the Hawkeyes are poised to make a run again this fall.
This sell rating is less a reflection of the players Northwestern carries into 2016 as it is a summation of the Wildcats’ ’15 season, which saw them make a five-win improvement to a 10–3 record. Northwestern played in eight games decided by 10 points or fewer and won all eight. The Wildcats’ three losses came by a combined 107 points. You can call that a knack for winning close games, but it has much more to do with luck. Northwestern was unlucky in ’14, going 2–4 in games decided by 10 points or less, and in ’13, going 1–5 in such games.
The Wildcats, it seems, can only hit the extreme ends of the spectrum when it comes to close games. But barring another run of extremely good fortune, they’ll be hard pressed to hit double-digit wins again. Just five starters return from last year’s fifth-ranked defense in defensive S&P+ ratings, and top defensive end Dean Lowry (13.5 tackles for loss, six pass breakups) is off to the NFL. Still, linebacker Anthony Walker is back after his breakout campaign (1222 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss) as is cornerback Matthew Harris (four interceptions).
The questions that will have a bigger impact on Northwestern’s season come on offense, where the Wildcats must get improved production from rising sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson (50.8% completion percentage, 1,522 yards, seven passing touchdowns, nine interceptions). Running back Justin Jackson carried the offense with 312 attempts, third in the country, for 1,418 yards last year. But with 557 carries over two seasons on Jackson’s 5’11”, 185-pound frame, injuries have to be a concern.
Washington State: Hold
No Power 5 team made a bigger leap in 2015 than Washington State, which improved from 3–9 in ’14 to 9–4 and a Sun Bowl victory. Looking ahead to ’16, one thing appears certain—the Cougars will rack up yards through the air.
That’s admittedly not saying about any team coached by Mike Leach, but even by his prodigious standards there’s reason to expect big things. Quarterback Luke Falk returns after throwing for 4,561 yards last season, and he’ll partner with top receiver Gabe Marks (104, receptions, 1,192 yards) again in addition to River Cracraft and Robert Lewis.
The defense faces a bit more turnover after rising 21 spots to 74th in defensive S&P+ ratings, but the return of safety Shalom Luani (90 tackles, four interceptions), DE Hercules Mata’afa (11 tackles for loss, seven sacks) and LB Peyton Pelluer (101 tackles, 11 tackles for loss) should help.
If there’s concern for the Cougars, it’s that they could remain just as good as last year yet finish no better than fourth in the Pac-12 North. Stanford looks to be a premier squad again while Oregon aims to rebound from last year’s up-and-down season and Washington appears set to make its rise under Chris Petersen. The Pac-12 North could be a slugfest in 2016, so it’s up to Washington State to prove it can hang.