Predicting College Football's 7 Most Improved Teams for 2013
Attention all college football fanbases that suffered through the 2012 season: Your team may be a lot better in 2013.
Yes, perhaps the only silver lining of a campaign filled with pain and angst is the possibility that just around the bend is the glory you’ve been long dreaming of.
To illustrate, consider Oregon State, a team that went 3-9 in 2011 and soared back with a 9-4 campaign in 2012.
Another fine recent example of this phenomenon comes via Ohio State, which finished its 2011 campaign 6-7 and turned things around effectively enough to streak to a 12-0 record in 2012.
The truth is the cyclical nature of personnel turnover in college football combined with fluctuating strengths of schedules from season to season means that last year’s dog can be the belle of this year’s ball.
Frankly, this is a message of hope for the 50 or so FBS squads that finished under the .500 mark in 2012.
The following slideshow looks ahead to 2013 and pinpoints seven college football teams that may be the most improved programs this coming season.
For a variety of reasons, these clubs will not only thrill their own somewhat beleaguered fanbases, but they’ll also garner the attention and respect of the entire college football nation.
Returning starter data provided here comes via the delicate yet heavy hitting numerical stylings of Phil Steele.
New Mexico State
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Even though New Mexico State hasn’t posted more than four wins in a season since going 5-7 in 2004, the good news is it ought to improve on its 1-11 mark from 2012 this coming season.
What bodes well for the Aggies is the fact that after coming into the 2012 campaign ranked No. 116 nationally in returning starters, they’ll be coming into 2013 ranked No. 41 in the FBS.
The net difference is a program that returned a mere 10 starters last season versus a squad that’s set to return 14 plus a punter in 2013.
Things get even brighter when you realize that the Aggies bring back their starting QB this season, while last year, they were looking for a new starter under center.
In terms of strength of schedule, the outlook is a bit hazy for New Mexico State in 2013 due to the fact that it’s been forced to declare independent status since the WAC dissolved its participation in football.
While the Aggies faced Auburn and BYU last season, they’ll be challenged even more in 2013 by Texas, Minnesota, UCLA and Boston College.
Beyond that, New Mexico State has picked up former WAC foes along with representatives of the Sun Belt and C-USA.
In reality, the change in scheduling due to the WAC disbanding may make it more difficult to properly gauge the Aggies' improvement in 2013, but if nothing else, they should be able to manage at least two wins.
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After dropping to 5-7 in 2012, Demon Deacon fans will no doubt look for their squad to return to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011.
The good news is that Wake Forest is another team set to welcome a healthier number of starters back in 2013 versus its relatively low totals from 2012.
To illustrate, the Deacons brought back a mere 12 starters last season (ranking No. 96 nationally) while for 2013 they’re set to bring back 16 guys plus both the starting kicker and punter from last season (ranking No. 17 nationally).
Another building block for 2013 comes in the form of a schedule that drops Notre Dame completely and adds ULM.
Sure, Wake Forest still will have to travel to Clemson and Miami (Fla.) but Florida State, NC State and Maryland all will be home games.
Though the Deacons aren’t likely to be in the mix for the ACC Atlantic crown next season, look for Wake Forest’s name to be listed among the teams that have earned the right to go bowling in 2013.
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One of the stories behind Temple’s first season in the Big East in 2012 was the fact that it returned a mere nine starters from its 2011 product that went 9-4 in its final crack at the MAC.
Though this certainly doesn’t make the 4-7 finish last season any easier to swallow, it does at least make it understandable.
For 2013, the Owls will welcome 15 starters back on campus from 2012, which earns them a No. 24 national ranking in returnees versus their No. 120 mark from a year ago.
The other thing you’ve got to like about Temple’s chances for a huge upward swing in 2013 is the fact that they’ll be entering what should be a wide-open, new-look Big East race.
Gone are Syracuse and Pitt (both losses for Temple in 2012) and in their place will likely be games with Houston, SMU, Memphis or UCF.
From a non-conference standpoint, the Owls will travel to Notre Dame this season but will balance out their out-of-league slate with a trio of games vs. FCS Fordham, Idaho and Army.
All three contests should be graded “winnable”.
Again, while we may not expect to see Temple in the Big East winner’s circle this season, we should see the Owls in a bowl game.
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What makes Arizona’s 8-5 mark in Rich Rodriguez’s inaugural campaign in 2012 all the more impressive is the fact that the Wildcats posted the record with one of the least experienced teams in the nation.
Yes—did you know that Arizona came into last season (off a four-win campaign in 2011) with only 12 starters, earning it the dubious rank of No. 96 nationally?
And furthermore, did you know that moving forward, the Wildcats will welcome back 17 starters in 2013, a number that earns them the No. 8 slot nationally?
Included in the landslide are seven offensive starters and a whopping 10 guys back on defense.
What also bodes well for Arizona is that after juggling a schedule that Phil Steele rated as the 14th most difficult slate in the FBS in 2012, the 'Cats will get a real measure of relief in 2013.
Stanford is completely off the slate in 2013 and though Oregon is still on tap, this season’s game will be played at Arizona.
Non-conference games against Toledo, Oklahoma State and FCS South Carolina State from last season will be replaced with contests against FCS Northern Arizona, UNLV and UTSA in 2013.
Though this is not necessarily a “whole new world” scenario, the slight improvement in scheduling combined with the significant upward trend in experience may equal a very pleasing result this coming season.
And again, we’re talking about improving on an 8-5 mark which means that big things might go down in Rich Rod’s second season at Arizona.
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Another fanbase that is likely desperate to add some wins to a one-win total in 2012, Colorado has at least a pocketful of reasons to be optimistic in 2013.
First, the Buffs will gain a measure of experience this season improving from a No. 64 national ranking in 2012 (14 starters) to a No. 8 ranking in 2013 (17 starters plus both the punter and kicker).
This means that Colorado is tied with Arizona for the most experienced team in the Pac-12 for 2013.
Add in the momentum that only a new coaching staff can bring and could it be that the Buffs are sitting on the verge of their first bowl bid since 2007?
In terms of what the schedule looks like for Colorado, the Buffs drop Stanford in 2013 but still will have to face Oregon, which at least will be a home game this season.
Unfortunately, Washington State (Colorado’s only win 2012) is off the slate and Oregon State and Washington fill out the rest of the Buffs’ Pac-12 North foes.
If the goal is indeed six wins, just a quick look at the schedule makes it easy to see that it certainly won’t be easy, but still—you’ve got to figure it safe to say that Colorado can pick up a minimum of three wins in 2013.
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For anyone who might have missed it, Hawaii dropped to 3-9 in 2012 representing its worst finish since winning only three games during June Jones’ first season back in 2000.
Though this decline is another which is difficult for fans to stomach, it can be explained away at least partially by significant personnel losses: In 2012, Hawaii returned only 12 starters from the Hawaii team that won six games in 2011.
For 2013, the Warriors are due to bring back a whopping 18 starters (plus the kicker) improving their returnee ranking from a No. 96 rating in 2012 to a tie for the No. 5 spot nationally this season.
Frankly, it’s difficult to express how important this may be for Hawaii.
From a scheduling standpoint, the Warriors will face their second season as Mountain West members, meaning that Boise State, San Diego State and Fresno State are all still on the slate for 2013.
Outside Mountain West play, Hawaii retains its game with USC, only it will face the Trojans at home in Honolulu in 2013, making the game against Kiffin and company in the opener all the more intriguing.
Other than that, the Warriors drop FCS Lamar, BYU and South Alabama and pick up Oregon State, Navy and Army.
No matter how you slice it, and regardless of who it will square off against, the 2013 Hawaii team should be a significant improvement over the team we saw in 2012.
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The Hurricanes’ 7-5 finish in 2012 should be viewed by utilizing two very important perspectives.
First, Miami scored seven wins with one of the least seasoned squads in the country last season. To quantify, the ‘Canes brought back a mere 12 starters in 2012, a number that did not include a starting QB and accounted for only four members of the offense.
Secondly, the Hurricanes faced a slate in 2012 that Phil Steele rated as the ninth-hardest in the entire FBS.
This was a preseason ranking, but regardless of when the number was issued, Miami squared off against Notre Dame, Kansas State and Florida State last season—all BCS-bound squads and in terms of the two teams that competed in conferences in 2012, the Big 12 and ACC champs.
Moving ahead, these two important points regarding last season are also the foundation of why Miami could potentially explode in 2013.
To start with, the Hurricanes bring back 19 starters in 2013 which ties them for the No. 1 slot in the FBS. Included in this haul are ten offensive players and nine defenders, an even spread that’s even more impressive when you count the five guys back on the offensive line.
Next, Notre Dame and K-State are both off the slate for next season and though the ‘Canes add a provocative Week 2 home stand vs. Florida, the balance of the non-conference slate includes FAU, FCS Savannah State and USF.
Florida State remains on the schedule from the Atlantic, but Clemson isn’t an issue unless the ‘Canes meet them in the ACC title game.
All in all, Miami might have one of the best cases for a huge turnaround in 2013, and if they can steer clear of any significant NCAA sanctions, they could easily be back in the BCS for the first time since 2004.