College Football Teams in New Conferences That Will Thrive Most in 2014
For the last three years, college football realignment has been a constant topic of discussion.
College football’s carousel hummed and spun with rumors and innuendo about which team would head where.
Were Texas and Oklahoma headed to the Pac-12?
Were Clemson and Florida State going to the Big 12? Or the SEC?
Was Notre Dame going to the Big 12 or the Big 10?
Eventually, some big moves happened: Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers to the Big 10; Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville to the ACC; Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC; Colorado and Utah to the Pac-12; and TCU and West Virginia to the Big 12, among others.
But as summer approaches, realignment is winding down, with a new era of stability (for now) settling in. This fall, the last wave of the realignment craze will settle into new leagues across the nation.
Here is a look at some schools that are set up to succeed in college football’s realigned paradigm.
Louisville is one of the biggest winners in college football realignment. The Cardinals went 23-3 over the last two seasons with a Sugar Bowl rout of Florida and a Russell Athletic Bowl rout of Miami before coach Charlie Strong bolted for Texas, replaced by old-new coach Bobby Petrino.
They escaped the American Athletic Conference (which won’t have an automatic ticket into the new College Football Playoff) for the ACC, one of the new "Power 5" conferences.
Petrino’s new assignment isn’t easy. Louisville replaces Maryland in the ACC Atlantic Division, which features a pair of returning BCS bowl winners in defending national champion Florida State and Clemson.
Patrick Stevens of The Post-Standard in Syracuse says the move isn't that different from the last time Petrino coached at Louisville, when he helped the Cardinals transition from Conference USA to the Big East in 2003.
"We feel like we can go in and compete," Petrino said on last month’s ACC coaches’ spring teleconference. "That's certainly our goal and something that we're going to work towards. But we're going to have to show it."
Strong didn’t leave the cupboard bare. Petrino must replace NFL first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater, one of the most prolific quarterbacks in program history, with sophomore Will Gardner, who stands 6'5" and still has some mobility and capability of moving in the pocket.
He has some excellent targets, including explosive receiver DeVante Parker and speedy wideouts Eli Rogers and James Quick. Louisville also returns four starting offensive linemen to help smooth Gardner’s transition.
There will be some transition on defense. A year ago, Louisville’s defense ranked No. 1 in total defense (allowing 251.1 yards per game) and second in scoring defense (allowing 12.2 points per game), but new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham returns only four starters and is converting from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme.
Louisville’s first schedule will be daunting: The Cardinals travel to Notre Dame and Clemson, and host Florida State and Miami. But eight to nine wins isn’t an unrealistic expectation for a first ACC season, which wouldn’t be too bad given the jump in competition.
East Carolina: AAC
East Carolina has quietly become an impressive mid-major program under coach Ruffin McNeill. McNeill enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2013, leading the Pirates to a 10-3 record capped by a Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl win over Ohio.
East Carolina returns a number of talented offensive players, led by senior quarterback Shane Carden and senior receiver Justin Hardy, but it returns only two starting offensive linemen and three starters on defense.
However, Carden is one of the most productive quarterbacks in college football, throwing for over 4,100 yards with 33 touchdowns against 10 interceptions as a junior. Hardy, his main target, caught 114 passes for 1,284 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior.
If the offense can keep up its productivity and the defense can improve, East Carolina should be able to continue its success with a deep group of skill players.
ECU isn’t afraid to play anyone, and this season is no different. The Pirates travel to Virginia Tech and South Carolina, and host North Carolina in a three-week span before jumping into the AAC schedule.
But with former Conference USA mates Tulsa, Tulane, Central Florida and SMU along, it isn’t really that large of a jump in competition. ECU hosts UCF, and its toughest AAC road game will be at Cincinnati. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Pirates challenge for the league title in their first AAC season.
"I think we have things in place to compete," McNeill told The Fayetteville Observer. "Our group is ready for it."
The Green Wave made a surprising breakthrough in 2013, going from 2-10 in 2012 to 7-6 and the program’s first bowl bid in a decade. Clearly, Curtis Johnson and his program are doing something right, and Tulane is on the upswing with a young roster as it moves into a new stadium this fall, as well as a new league.
Johnson’s staff has something of a youth movement in place. While senior Nick Montana was the No. 1 starter most of last season, he finished spring practice third on the depth chart behind freshman Tanner Lee and sophomore Devin Powell.
Tulane also returns only two starters (both tackles) from an offensive line that had issues last fall, with three sophomores expected to man the guard and center spots.
The Green Wave returns six defensive starters, but loses talented defensive tackles Chris Davenport and Julius Warmsley, as well as linebacker Zach Davis (41 tackles, nine for loss).
The 2014 season opens with a road game at fellow Conference USA refugee Tulsa and a visit from the ACC’s Georgia Tech, and it also features road games at Duke, Central Florida, Houston and East Carolina.
If the youth adapts quickly, it is possible to see the Green Wave get six wins and a bowl bid again. Regardless, the future is bright in New Orleans.
The Golden Hurricane is coming off a down season, but it was a consistent contender in Conference USA. Joining the American Athletic Conference doesn’t seem like that much of a jump. After all, six former C-USA teams are now in the AAC.
However, Tulsa must prove that 2013 was an aberration.
Following a 29-11 record from 2010-12, the Golden Hurricane slipped to 3-9 in 2013 thanks to a very poor offense that averaged 21.1 points (No. 102 nationally) and 356.2 yards per game (No. 93 nationally).
Sophomore quarterback Dane Evans (4 TD, 10 INT and 898 yards in 2013) must improve, and Tulsa needs a starting tailback to emerge (leading returning rusher Zack Langer had 58 yards in 2013) and must replace three offensive linemen. Although, as bad as the offense was last fall, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Ten starters return on defense, which is a positive. If the offense can show signs of improvement, the schedule is manageable. Tulsa hosts Oklahoma and travels to Central Florida but does not have to face Cincinnati. It also hosts South Florida and East Carolina. There’s no reason the Golden Hurricane can’t scratch out six to eight wins and return to a bowl in their first AAC season.
Western Kentucky: Conference USA
Western Kentucky has become one of the more consistent programs in the mid-major ranks, even though the Hilltoppers are on their third head coach in as many years following Willie Taggart’s departure to South Florida and Bobby Petrino’s one-year stopover before going back to Louisville.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm, Petrino’s right-hand man, was promoted to oversee WKU’s promotion from the Sun Belt to Conference USA.
WKU also returns starting quarterback Brandon Doughty (14 TD, 14 INT, 2,857 YD in 2013), but he’ll be challenged by four backups, led by junior Nelson Fishback. Brohm knows Doughty must improve, as he told The Associated Press, via USA Today:
We have to continue to develop the quarterback position. Obviously, Brandon has to get better and continue to improve on his weaknesses, which we've identified at the middle of last year. I think he knows what they are. ... If we do that, I think he can be efficient, but there's definitely work to do.
The Hilltoppers return five offensive starters, including leading receiver Willie McNeal (46 catches, 599 yards in 2013), but they return only three defensive starters.
The biggest concern is replacing tailback Antonio Andrews, the Sun Belt Player of the Year. Junior Leon Allen (370 yards, five touchdowns in 2013) is the leading candidate.
The Hilltoppers start with three of their first four games on the road, at Illinois, Middle Tennessee and Navy, but they finish with four of six at home, traveling only to Louisiana Tech and Marshall to close the season. Those will be difficult games, but a bowl game is well within WKU’s reach, assuming young players on the defense improve and Doughty is a consistent quarterback.
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