College football, more than any other sport, is driven by perception: Year after year, debate after debate, the discussion inevitably devolves into parsing the collective wisdom as reflected by polls, selection committees, and talking heads. And as anyone who has ever required a reputation can tell you, perception is difficult to change. Teams at the top tend to stay there in the hive mind despite temporary setbacks, or to return quickly if they suffer an extended lapse. Meanwhile, other programs can go years or even decades without moving the needle, and usually return promptly to obscurity after the rare occasions in which they do.
Earlier this week, I examined the teams perceived as serious championship contenders in 2015 to determine which front-runners best fit the template established by past champs. Today, I’m shifting the focus a little further down the food chain, to a handful of teams that have the best chance of shifting perceptions this season after suffering through extended bouts of mediocrity or worse. None of the teams listed below are aspiring for a playoff bid just yet, but relative to how they’ve been viewed over the past few seasons, they’re in the best position to take a great leap forward this year.
Last Three Years: 14-23 (4-20 in SEC); last place in SEC West in 2013 and 2014
This Year: A New Year’s Six bowl?
It might be a stretch to suggest Arkansas ended last season playing as well as any team in America, if only because it’s kind of hard to match Ohio State’s playoff run behind a third-string quarterback. But for an outfit that finished in last place in its own division for the second year in a row, it was certainly a lot closer to the top of that list than the standings let on: After an 0-5 start in SEC play, the Razorbacks flipped the script by shutting out LSU (17-0) and Ole Miss (30-0) in consecutive weeks, then annihilated Texas (31-7) in the Texas Bowl for emphasis. As of mid-November 2014, second-year coach Bret Bielema had yet to win a conference game in 13 tries; as of earlier this month, his team was ranked in the top 20 in both the AP and Coaches preseason polls thanks to the presumption that in Fayetteville, The Leap has already occurred.
In retrospect, it should have been clear long before the breakthrough that Arkansas was less a scrappy underdog than an ascendant threat. Five of the Razorbacks’ six losses in 2014 came against teams ranked in the AP Top 10 at kickoff, with the sixth coming against then–no. 17 Missouri. Four of their losses came by a touchdown or less, and they led all of those games in the second half; that swath included losses to the eventual SEC West champion, Alabama, by one point due in part to a blocked PAT, and to the division’s runner-up, Mississippi State, by seven points after leading at the half. Outside of the conventional polls, Arkansas ranked fifth nationally in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings, eighth in Jeff Sagarin’s “Predictor” column, ninth in Football Outsiders’s F/+ ratings, 12th in Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, 16th according to Kenneth Massey, and 17th in ESPN’s Football Power Index — all disproportionately high marks for a fringe bowl team.
The looming question now is how much of that latent potential will carry over to the new season, especially with most of the starting defense gone1 and the leading rusher, Jonathan Williams, out for the year with a foot injury. But there’s still oversize tailback Alex Collins, a blue-chip talent who’s exceeded 1,000 yards in each of the past two years while sharing carries with Williams, and he’ll be grinding behind four-fifths of last year’s gargantuan offensive line. If Bielema’s plodding, old-school blueprint isn’t quite enough (yet) to overcome the talent gap between the Hogs and playoff aspirants Alabama and Auburn in the West, it should at the very least ensure that Arkansas is your dad’s new favorite team by Thanksgiving.
Most notably the “Bermuda Triangle” of 2015 draft picks Trey Flowers, Darius Philon, and Martrell Spaight.
Last Three Years: 9-27 (5-22 in Pac-12); three consecutive losing seasons
This Year: Nine wins?
Sonny Dykes’s first two years as Cal’s head coach followed the classic “rebuilding” trajectory. First, you lose big: In 2013, the inexperienced, injury-ravaged Bears were 0-11 against FBS opponents, losing in Pac-12 play by an average margin of nearly 28 points per game. Next, you lose close: In 2014, the Bears nearly doubled their scoring average in conference games and shaved the average margin of defeat to 6.5 points, improving to 5-7 overall in a season lived almost entirely on the margins.
Now, the mewling neophytes of 2013 are seasoned juniors and seniors, and expectations have shifted accordingly for the arrival of Phase 3: winning close. If you’re at all familiar with Cal, you know those hopes hinge entirely on the offense, which is a legitimate threat to short-circuit every scoreboard in its path: Last year’s “Bear Raid” hit 40 points in six games, a number that will likely rise behind junior quarterback Jared Goff — a day one starter as a true freshman and an emerging favorite among NFL scouts — and a reliable returning batch of backs and receivers that accounted for 93.3 percent of last year’s total offense.2 You also know the Bears have no choice but to shoot for 40 points every time out, because the 2014 defense yielded 39.8 per game, worst in the Pac-12, and failed to hold a single FBS opponent below 24.
The only significant departure was wide receiver Chris Harper, who left early only to go undrafted after failing to earn an invite to the combine.
The result is undeniably a lot of fun for neutral observers, even if it’s certain to leave your dad shaking his head: In one three-game stretch last year, Cal scored 164 points, allowed 164 points, and watched the games come down to a Hail Mary, double overtime, and a missed field goal, respectively. Still, with the inevitable fireworks on offense, even a marginal improvement on defense could be good enough to keep the Bears in the Pac-12 North race well into November. And frankly, with this defense, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Last Three Years: 22-17 (11-13 in Big Ten); five or more losses each season
This Year: Big Ten West champs?
Of all the teams on this list, Minnesota is the one with the least obvious line of demarcation from success to slump: Give or take a handful of respectable campaigns in the Glen Mason era, Minnesota’s slump is well into its fifth decade.3 But it’s also the program with the shortest distance to travel from its most recent efforts to a bona fide breakthrough: Although Minnesota hasn’t claimed a championship of any kind since 1960, after consecutive 8-5 finishes, the gap between the Gophers and a division title doesn’t require a leap so much as a solid, sustained step forward.
Minnesota was a Depression era powerhouse in the 1930s and ’40s and claims an AP national championship as recently as 1960. From that point on, though, the Gophers are 50 games below .500 and have exceeded eight wins in a season just once, going 10-3 in 2003.
In fact, because the past two seasons have followed essentially the same script, we can pinpoint exactly when and where that step needs to come: at home, on November 28, in the regular-season finale against Wisconsin. Two years ago, Minnesota went into the Wisconsin game boasting a surprising 8-2 record and with upsets over Nebraska and Penn State already under its belt; the Gophers subsequently lost to the Badgers, 20-7, then dropped their last two against Michigan State and Syracuse. Last year, Minnesota took an 8-3 mark into Madison, having already scored reassuring wins over Iowa and Nebraska in addition to throwing a scare into Ohio State; again, though, the Gophers couldn’t get past Wisconsin with the Big Ten West title on the line, and settled for another unranked finish after falling to Missouri in the Citrus Bowl.
Admittedly, as improbable as Minnesota’s ascendance to viable West Division contender under coach Jerry Kill has been, it probably wouldn’t be possible at all if not for the ongoing frustration at Nebraska (which fired its coach after last season), Iowa (which may be on the verge of firing its coach), and even Northwestern (which may be starting to think about firing its coach at some point). The Big Ten West is the weakest division in the Power 5 conferences by a mile, but it’s not by random chance that the Gophers have come closer than any of their rivals to exceeding their historical ceiling under Kill, or that they’ve done it in largely nondescript, fundamentally sound fashion. With the question marks facing Wisconsin, there’s a case to be made that the Badgers’ status as de facto division front-runner owes more to inertia than to merit. If so, the time for Minnesota to end the drought is now, because the window for capitalizing on a down division may not be open for long.
Last Three Years: 4-32 (2-22 in Conference USA); three consecutive last-place finishes
This Year: Bowl game?
Southern Miss, on the other hand, has the most obvious line of demarcation: Before 2012, the Golden Eagles delivered 18 consecutive winning seasons and five C-USA championships, including a 12-2 triumph in 2011 that stands among the best seasons in school history. Since 2012, the Eagles have languished at the bottom of the sport by all conceivable measures, victims of an abrupt, unforeseen nosedive that still cannot be explained. Entering his third season, coach Todd Monken isn’t facing any ultimatums — the crater he inherited from his one-and-done predecessor, Ellis Johnson, is still emitting toxic fumes — but he isn’t waiting around for the homegrown talent to pay dividends, either.
When preseason camp kicked off earlier this month, Southern Miss’s depth chart featured a staggering 22 players who began their careers at other schools, at least half of whom have either cracked the starting lineup already or have a legitimate chance to do so. That number includes junior-college transfers4 as well as refugees from Michigan (RB Justice Hayes), Auburn (DE Ricky Parks and LB Anthony Swain), Oklahoma (DT Quincy Russell), Kansas (DT Andrew Bolton), Arkansas (OL Drew Peterson), Houston (WR Casey Martin), and TCU (QB Tyler Matthews) — in other words, just about any healthy, eligible body who can upgrade the talent level long enough to get Monken’s rebuilding project off the ground. “I don’t know how many [transfers] will start, but they’ll all play,” Monken said earlier this month. “Would be foolish if they didn’t play for us. To use a scholarship and not have them play, that’d be foolish.”
Eleven members of Southern Miss’s 2015 recruiting class came from the juco ranks.
Again, Monken has some time if every short-term scholarship doesn’t come to full fruition. But given that six wins this fall would qualify as dramatic progress, and given a 2015 schedule that includes exceedingly winnable dates with Austin Peay, Texas State, North Texas, UT–San Antonio, Charlotte, UTEP, and Old Dominion, if it’s not right now, the outlook for two or three years from now isn’t going to look much better.
Last Three Years: 12–23 (7–16 in Big East/AAC); three consecutive losing seasons
This Year: AAC champs?
Last year, one-third of the AAC title went to a historically hapless program, Memphis, which in its third season under coach Justin Fuente came out of nowhere to produce school records for wins (10) and final rank (25th, the Tigers’ first ranked finish). This year, the same insurgent role could very well be filled by Temple, an even more downtrodden enterprise over the years that quietly finds itself in prime position for a similar turnaround under third-year coach Matt Rhule. A longtime Temple assistant under predecessors Al Golden and Steve Addazio, Rhule is the kind of boss who shows up to training camp sporting a survival beard and saying things like, “We do not put our hands on our hips. We do not bend over at Temple,” and he’s assembled a defense that plays exactly the way its coach talks.
In 2014, the Owls tied for fourth nationally in scoring defense, yielding just 17.5 points per game, and led all mid-majors in Defensive S&P+, where they ranked 16th. In 2015, they return 14 of their top 15 tacklers from that group, including All-AAC picks Tyler Matakevich at linebacker5 and Matt Ioannidis and Praise Martin-Oguike on the line, laying the foundation for a unit that could be as good as any in the nation.
Matakevich is the active FBS leader in career tackles, with 355.
Offensively … well, at least it can’t get any worse after Temple failed to score more than one offensive touchdown in any of its last seven games,6 and there’s reason to believe it can get a lot better: Quarterback P.J. Walker took a noticeable step back last year as a sophomore after a pleasantly surprising debut in 2013, and Rhule brought in ex–Atlanta Falcons QB coach Glenn Thomas to get Walker back on track. If that happens, the difference between a repeat of last year’s 6-6 slog and the kind of nine- or 10-win miracle that might put Rhule in a bigger job could be as little as a few more productive possessions per game.
The defense added a second TD in the Owls’ 20-10 upset of East Carolina.
Last Three Years: 17-20 overall (6-18 in SEC); six or more losses in each of the last seven seasons for a 40-47 (17-39) overall mark
This Year: SEC East champs?
The Volunteers’ post–Phillip Fulmer odyssey has been well-documented, with each passing season seeming to set them further adrift from the elite perch they once took for granted. It’s been so long since Tennessee was relevant regionally or nationally that its absence from the conversation feels more normal at this point. The 2015 Vols are eight years removed from the program’s last division title and more than a decade removed from its last top-10 finish, which for players on the current roster may as well be ancient history. Since escorting Fulmer from the premises in 2008, Tennessee has spent a grand total of one week in the AP poll, early in a 2012 season that ended with coach Derek Dooley — who, remember, was hired essentially by default after Lane Kiffin’s midnight ride out of Knoxville in January 2010 — getting the ax for posting his third consecutive losing record.
So while UT fans are understandably wary of the notion that the 2015 Vols are primed for a turnaround, they’re also anxious to cling to any promise of forward momentum. And it’s hard to imagine a more optimistic finish to a season than last year’s Gator Bowl romp over Iowa, Tennessee’s fourth win in its last five games, a blowout orchestrated by a lineup that was even greener than it was orange: Altogether, 23 true freshmen from the 2014 recruiting class saw the field at some point in the season, most in the nation, and going into the bowl game the official two-deep featured 25 first- and second-year players to just four seniors. “We were basically an expansion team,” third-year coach Butch Jones told me earlier this summer. “We were the youngest team in college football.”
Considering the schedule (the non–SEC East portion of the slate included Oklahoma, Ole Miss, and Alabama), the 2014 Vols were better than any team that young had a right to be, playing East Division heavies Georgia, Florida, and Missouri within one score apiece and posting a come-from-behind win over South Carolina that made the eye-opening bowl appearance possible. By the time Jones and his staff put the finishing touches on a top-five recruiting class in February,7 the brakes on the 2015 Volunteer bandwagon had more or less ceased to exist. This month, Tennessee checked in at no. 25 in both major preseason polls, with a Week 2 visit from no. 19 Oklahoma looming as the first litmus test of just how grown up the baby Vols really are.
The incoming crop for 2015 features five players ranked in 247Sports’s composite top 100 prospects nationally, two of whom (defensive linemen Kyle Phillips and Shy Tuttle) were in for spring practice as early enrollees; so was tailback Alvin Kamara, a former Nick Saban signee who found the depth chart too crowded at Alabama, spent the 2014 season in junior college, and arrived in Knoxville in January as arguably the most coveted juco prospect in the nation.
Jones hasn’t shied away from the suggestion that the “rebuilding” phase of his tenure is over, calling the higher expectations “extremely healthy for our program” after an extended period of irrelevance. (“A lot of the players we’re recruiting didn’t remember the successes of Tennessee in the past,” he said. “Now to have Tennessee in those conversations, it’s been helpful.”) But he’s also been quick to point out that, despite returning recognizable names and faces at virtually every position, the lineup is still largely led by underclassmen and remains a long way from facing a make-or-break campaign in a conference that tends to be dominated by juniors and seniors. In embracing an environment of cautious optimism, he hasn’t abandoned the caution.
“Sixty-four percent of our roster has played one year of college football or less,” Jones said. “It’s one thing to be a year older. We have to be a year better. In everything: Maturity, leadership, strength and conditioning, fundamentals, our style of play, all of that goes into playing winning football. … So there’s still a lot of firsts for this football team.”