This college football season is unique, in that the roster of the defending national champion, Ohio State, is mostly intact. While most seasons begin with a handful of favorites, usually your Alabamas, Oregons, and the like, they usually have some big question marks because of graduations and departures. Ohio State loses some good players, but the biggest roster question is whether to start a third-team All-American or the guy who led the team to the Big Ten Championship, a Sugar Bowl win, and a national championship at quarterback.
Even with a repeat national championship, Ohio State doesn't have much room to improve. The Buckeyes were playing unbelievable football by season's end, and we expect them to do much of the same in 2015. There are, however, a number of teams poised to be much better in 2015 than they were in 2014. Last season, TCU and Tennessee were among the programs that we expected big improvements from. This year, we have 10 programs that we think will take a solid step forward from 2014. While not all of these sub-.500 teams may turn into bowl participants, and the eight-win squads may not become playoff contenders, we expect the play on the field to improve for each of these programs.
Next: No. 10 Stanford Cardinal >>>
10. Stanford Cardinal: 2014 Record – 8-5 (5-4 Pac-12)
It is a testament to the job that David Shaw has done at Stanford that an 8-5 season feels so poor. From 2010 to 2013, Stanford won 11 or 12 games and went to four straight BCS bowls. After back to back Rose Bowl appearances in 2012 and 2013, it is natural for the Foster Farms Bowl to seem like a bit of a let down. Stanford struggled with the Pac-12's elite teams, but improved as the season went along, and finished with three straight big wins including a blowout victory over a good UCLA team.
2015 Projection – 8-4 (6-3 Pac-12)
The Pac-12 is still a brutal league, even with the departure of elite quarterbacks like Brett Hundley and Marcus Mariota, but Stanford should take a step forward. Kevin Hogan returns after a solid junior season, in which he completed just under 66 percent of his passes and had a 19:8 touchdown to interception ratio. The Cardinal should handle the non-Oregon schools in the Pac-12 North, and Colorado is a fairly easy crossover game from the Pac-12 South. The other three cross-division games—Arizona, UCLA, and at USC—will determine how big a season this is in Palo Alto.
2015 Best Case Scenario – 11-1 (8-1 Pac-12)
After knocking off Northwestern and UCF handily to start the year, Stanford slips up against USC in week three. The Cardinal fall off the radar a bit, until back to back wins at home against Arizona and UCLA raise some eyebrows. The Cardinal reacquire the kryptonite it has used to fell Oregon numerous times in the past, and finish the year at 11-1, with a rematch against USC in the Pac-12 championship on the horizon.
Next: No. 9 - Colorado Buffaloes >>>
9. Colorado Buffaloes : 2014 Record – 2-10 (0-9 Pac-12)
It has been a long road back to respectability for Colorado, and it still isn't clear if there is an end in sight for Mike MacIntyre's school. While the Buffaloes are far removed from where the program was in the 1990s, they were still making bowls on a fairly regular basis up through 2007, the program's second year under Dan Hawkins. In 2008, the Buffaloes fell to 5-7, and they haven't won more than five games since. Last season was another lowly campaign for CU at 2-10, a two-win drop from 2013, but the Buffaloes showed signs off life at points in conference play. Losses by five points to Oregon State, three points to UCLA, and three points to Utah could have all gone the other way.
2015 Projection – 4-9 (1-8 Pac-12)
Colorado's probably at least a year away from returning to post-season play, but we expect them to get on the board in conference this season with winnable games at Oregon State and Washington State. Colorado also has a pretty workable non-conference schedule, opening at Hawaii, giving them 13 games this season, before games against UMass, Colorado State, and Nicholls State. CSU is no walk-over in that pretty intense rivalry, but the rest of that schedule should be enough to push Colorado past last year's win total.
2015 Best Case Scenario – 6-6 (2-7 Pac-12)
Colorado sweeps the non-conference, and adds wins over Oregon State and Washington State in conference. 6-6 puts the Buffaloes back in bowl season for the first time in eight years. Mike MacIntyre inks a nice extension, and good vibes are abound in Boulder.
Next: No. 8 - Syracuse Orange >>>
8. Syracuse: 2014 Record – 3-9 (1-7 ACC)
The 2014 Syracuse football season was an exercise in Murphy's Law. Just about everything that could go wrong for the Orange, did. After sneaking by Villanova following the ejection of quarterback Terrel Hunt, Syracuse looked to have a bit of hope with a blowout win over Central Michigan in which they had seemingly righted the ship. Tough losses to Maryland and Notre Dame exploited offensive coordinator George McDonald's broken, bubble screen-heavy offensive system, and an injury to Hunt put a stake through the heart of the SU's season. Scott Shafer and his staff were forced to play three other players, none of whom had any experience, at quarterback after Hunt's broken leg due to additional injuries. The starting offensive line also faced the injury bug. McDonald was demoted at mid-season, breaking the news to the media himself. The defense held tough throughout the year, and nearly spurned an upset of Clemson in Death Valley, but things were ugly in Central New York last fall.
2015 Projection – 5-7 (2-6 ACC)
Unless the program has a nasty curse lingering around it, Syracuse should have a little less bad luck in 2014. A healthy Hunt, who has not proven to be a great quarterback but has had flashes of brilliance against peer programs like Boston College and Minnesota, should be worth a win. A coherent offensive scheme, which Syracuse lacked in 2014, could be worth another. A game against LSU at the Carrier Dome aside, the Orange should help themselves early in the season, with games against URI, Wake Forest, Central Michigan, USF, and Virginia. Even if the offense rebounds a bit, Syracuse's normally strong defense lost a number of key players to graduation and the NFL, and will be very young at every level, with a number of freshmen expected to contribute. Regression to the mean should have the Orange flirting with .500 all season, but unless the defense plays to the level of vintage Shafer units, they may fall short of a bowl for the second year in a row.
2015 Best Case Scenario – 8-4 (5-3)
Syracuse runs through its first three games at the Carrier Dome, and while the loss to LSU is definitive, it isn't disheartening. The Orange pick up two more wins against USF and UVA, and knock off Pitt, N.C. State, and Boston College down the stretch. Scott Shafer receives an extension from new athletic director Mark Coyle, and while the program needs to replace Hunt at quarterback, fans are excited about the young defense that looks solidified for seasons to come. 2014 looks more like a speed bump for a program that has now made four bowls in six seasons.
Next: No. 7 - Michigan Wolverines >>>
7. Michigan Wolverines: 2014 Record – 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
The best thing Michigan fans can probably say about the 2014 season is that Brady Hoke didn't manage to lose to Appalachian State. It was clear heading into the season that Hoke was coaching for his job, but by the first week in October, when the Wolverines had dropped three straight games to Utah, Minnesota, and Rutgers, his fate was all but sealed. Michigan's defense had a decent season for the most part, but the offense, especially the quarterback position, was totally inconsistent. With a number of embarrassments on and off the field, Michigan's entire athletic department has been overhauled. While 5-7 is a terrible season by Michigan standards, the Wolverines may have won the off-season by landing alumnus Jim Harbaugh to rebuild the storied program.
2015 Projection – 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
Subbing Hoke, a coach who has had success elsewhere but was clearly out of his league at Michigan, for Harbaugh is a huge upgrade. Harbaugh has done incredibly well at every stop he's had, and we don't expect the turnaround at Michigan to take all that long. Someone who can turn Stanford into a borderline national championship contender should be able to do the same at Michigan. Opening at Utah is tough, as is a game against BYU later on in the non-conference, but Michigan should be able to take down Oregon State and UNLV. While teams like Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin have done a lot to help the Big Ten's reputation nationally, the middle and bottom of the league is still vulnerable. A Harbaugh-led Michigan team should be able to take four games from the group of Northwestern, Maryland, Minnesota, Rutgers, Indiana, and Penn State.
2015 Best Case Scenario – 9-3 (5-3 Big Ten)
Michigan comes out hot, winning at Utah and sweeping its non-conference schedule. Ohio State and Michigan State are still too much for the Wolverines, and they get tripped up by one other team—a tough late season game at Penn State looks like a the most likely spot for a third loss—but fans are thrilled with the four-game turnaround. Harbaugh and his staff continue to go full steam ahead on the recruiting trail with some serious results to sell. The Big Ten is as interesting as its been since before the SEC's run of BCS dominance.
Next: No. 6 - Oklahoma State >>>
6. Oklahoma State: 2014 Record – 7-6 (4-5 Big 12)
Few teams had a season that played out in as bizarre a fashion as Oklahoma State's. The Pokes played defending national champions Florida State tough in a 36-31 loss, won five straight against weak non-conference opponents and the dregs of the Big 12, and then went on a five-game losing streak in conference. Few expected Oklahoma State to rebound and beat rival Oklahoma in Bedlam, but then this happened...
That unbelievable return sent Bedlam to overtime, and Oklahoma State pulled out the huge upset win. They went on to beat Washington in the Cactus Bowl, turning a depressing season into an uplifting one in the matter of a few weeks.
2015 Projection – 8-4 (5-4 Big 12)
Baylor and TCU are the kings of the Big 12 until further notice, but there's no reason that Oklahoma State can't make a play to be the best squad of that league's next tier. Mason Rudolph returns as a solid quarterback option, and nine of the ten top targeted receivers on the 2014 roster are back this season. Oklahoma State's non-conference schedule is as easy as it gets, with a trip to Central Michigan, and home games against Central Arkansas and UTSA leading into the Big 12 slate. While we don't expect the Cowboys to knock off Baylor or TCU, they bring both to Stillwater, where upsets can always happen. Trips to Texas and West Virginia are difficult, but we expect a more conventional season for the 2015 Cowboys.
2015 Best Case Scenario – 10-2 (7-2 Big 12)
If everything breaks the Pokes' way, they could finish third behind the two national title contenders in the Big 12. Kansas and Iowa State are both a mess, and Texas Tech isn't much better with a very shoddy defense. Texas is still working its way back, and it is hard to make sense of a talented Oklahoma squad that totally fell apart in 2014. 10-2 would require Oklahoma State to basically sweep its coin flip games, but it isn't a record that is unprecedented for Mike Gundy's program. The Cowboys have won at least 10 games three times during his tenure.
Next: No. 5 Arkansas >>>
5. Arkansas: 2014 Record – 7-6 (2-6 SEC)
During SEC media days, Steve Spurrier took a shot at Arkansas, saying that his South Carolina fans were disappointed with seven wins while Razorback fans were doing "cartwheels." Spurrier isn't totally wrong, but that doesn't mean Razorback fans should feel any worse about their season. Seven wins was an important stepping stone for a team that found its identity and rhythm at mid-year, and was very close to picking up another massive win or two. Arkansas lost to then-No. 6 Texas A&M in overtime, and to Alabama by a single point a week later. By season's end, they had back-to-back shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss, and a a 31-7 bowl win over Texas that was probably worse than the score even indicates for the Longhorns.
2015 Projection – 8-4 (4-4 SEC)
While the LSU and Ole Miss games had to be amazing for Arkansas fans, we're not totally convinced that the Razorbacks are a true SEC West contender quite yet. They are definitely in the mix, but we'd like to see a bit more consistency before we crown them. Nevertheless, Arkansas won't have the same growing pains to go through early in the season, and they're on everyone's radar.
2015 Best Case Scenario – 10-2 (6-2 SEC)
Arkansas picks up right where it left off, running for 300 yards a game through UTEP, Toledo, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M to get to 4-0. Things get tougher in the heart of SEC play, and back-to-back losses to Alabama and Auburn disappoint fans, but the Razorbacks pick it back up with UT Martin at mid-season, and put themselves in great contention for a New Year's Six bowl berth.
Next: No. 4 Tennessee >>>
4. Tennessee: 2014 Record – 7-6 (3-5 SEC)
Butch Jones has been recruiting up a storm for Tennessee, and last season the Vols saw the first real tangible results of those efforts, posting the program's first winning record since 2009, the team's lone year under Lane Kiffin. A closer look at the results reveal that Tennessee was far closer than many realize to challenging for the top of the SEC East. Tennessee lost to Georgia by three points, Florida by one, and Missouri by eight. While the Vols were overpowered by SEC West crossover opponents Alabama and Ole Miss, with some progress, it is not unthinkable that they might make a run at Georgia and Missouri for the top of the division.