Predictions for Every Team Joining a New Conference in 2014
Conference realignment will tone itself down in 2015, but the upcoming college football season features almost as many moving parts as any season in recent memory.
It's not just at the lower levels, either.
With Maryland and Rutgers moving to the Big Ten and Louisville moving to the ACC, even some of the "power-five" leagues will experience important turnover in 2014.
The movement of those bigger programs began a chain reaction as they all needed to be replaced by teams from middling conferences such as Conference USA. In turn, those teams from C-USA needed to be replaced from even lower-regarded conferences, and the teams from those lower-regarded conferences needed to be replaced as well.
But how can every new member be expected to fare in 2014? Is there a Texas A&M lurking in the bunch that is ready to compete for a conference championship? Or will everybody struggle to adjust?
Here is a realistic prediction for them all.
The following pair of teams are making their FBS debut this coming season and will not play a true conference slate or be eligible to make the league championship game. Here is a brief outlook for both:
Appalachian State (FCS to Sun Belt)
Had Appalachian State moved to the FBS half a decade ago, it would have stood a chance of competing right away. Instead, it comes on the heels of a 4-8 season—its worst record in 20 years. There will be growing pains, but my bold prediction is that the Mountaineers hang with Michigan for at least one quarter in the season-opener at the Big House. Just because life is sometimes funny that way.
Georgia Southern (FCS to Sun Belt)
Georgia Southern is one of the proudest traditional FCS programs and beat Florida in Gainesville last season (in case you hadn't heard). It runs a triple-option attack that might make its FBS transition easier because it is a difficult scheme to defend. However, a new head coach, the loss of do-it-all back Jerick McKinnon and a manifest lack of size in the trenches should ultimately result in a difficult first year.
East Carolina (C-USA to AAC)
East Carolina would have been one of the best teams in the AAC last season—a season where it beat North Carolina by 24 points in Chapel Hill, lost to Virginia Tech by only five points and had a chance to win C-USA until getting blown out by Marshall in Week 14.
As far as star power is concerned, the Pirates can hang with anybody in their new league. Quarterback Shane Carden is already the class of the AAC, and receivers Justin Hardy and Isaiah Jones combined for a shade under 1,900 yards in 2014. Terrell Stanley and Montese Overton lead a deceptively good defensive front seven, as well.
A difficult non-conference schedule (at South Carolina, at Virginia Tech, vs. North Carolina) will make it harder for ECU to make a bowl but should have it performing at a higher level once the AAC season arrives. Even playing in a better league than C-USA will feel like a step down in competition after the Gamecocks, Hokies and Tar Heels.
This team can compete for a conference title.
Prediction: 7-5 (6-2)
Idaho (Independent to Sun Belt)
Idaho was a bit of a trainwreck last season, beating only Temple en route to a 1-11 campaign that featured a season-ending loss to fellow Sun Belt newcomer New Mexico State.
Head coach Paul Petrino is attempting to paper over the holes on his roster with JUCO players instead of high schoolers, signing 16 in the 2014 recruiting class. This move should help the Vandals get a little better in 2014 but might compromise their future down the road.
Sophomore QB Chad Chalich actually looked pretty good last spring and in the early part of last season before a season-ending shoulder injury. His improvement and a move to the Sun Belt, the worst FBS conference, give Idaho hope of flirting with a making a bowl.
But let's all be honest…it isn't gonna get there.
Prediction: 4-8 (3-5)
Louisville (AAC to ACC)
Louisville is one of the hardest teams in the country to project.
Beyond the glaring personnel losses—Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Smith and Calvin Pryor were all first-round NFL draft picks—the introduction of new head coach Bobby Petrino is one of the biggest wild cards in college football for 2014.
At the same time, the Cardinals, who are coming off one of the best seasons in program history, begin their transition from the AAC to the ACC. Among the teams waiting to greet them in 2014 are last year's national champion (Florida State), Orange Bowl champion (Clemson) and 2012's national runner-up (Notre Dame).
If Will Gardner looks even 75 percent as good during the regular season as he did (against backups) in the spring game, Louisville's offense should be fine. Petrino knows what he is doing on that side of the ball, and receiver DeVante Parker is a Biletnikoff candidate.
("Yeah he's really impressive. He puts a smile on my face," Petrino said of Parker at a press conference in late March, per Justin Renck of Cardinal Sport Zone. "…He should have a great year for us.")
Projected regression on defense, however, should keep this Louisville team from competing for a spot toward the top of the ACC. It might have an upset or two up its sleeve, but it will likely be too inconsistent to be considered a legitimate threat in the conference.
At least in year No. 1, that is.
Prediction: 8-4 (5-3)
Maryland (ACC to Big Ten)
Maryland started last season 4-0 and was ranked No. 25 in the AP poll before getting embarrassed at Florida State (63-0) and eventually going through another year of injury-plagued madness.
But all of the injuries the past few years have fostered a ton of depth for a Terps team that has been recruiting pretty well under Randy Edsall. Bill Connelly of SB Nation went into great depth explaining how good this roster could be (albeit "in an injury free utopia"):
[In an injury-free utopia…] Maryland could actually be very good this year. Ignore everything you know about recent injuries, and see what the Terrapins return. A well-seasoned dual-threat quarterback. Starting running backs from both 2012 and 2013. The aforementioned five-star receivers (Stefon Diggs and Deon Long), plus the three exciting receivers who thrived in their absence. Five players with starting experience on a solid offensive line. The top five tacklers on a solid defensive line. Eight of last year's top 10 linebackers. Five of last year's top six defensive backs, plus the aforementioned 2012 starter (Jeremiah Johnson). A smattering of well-touted freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Basically everybody from a top-20 special teams unit.
The biggest problem for Maryland—besides injury concerns—is the schedule.
The Terps don't just move to the Big Ten but to the dreaded Big Ten East, which means division games against Ohio State, Penn Stat, Michigan State and Michigan. In cross-division games against the much-weaker Big Ten West, it also drew the short straw with matchups against Iowa and Wisconsin.
Injuries or no injuries, expect next year to closely resemble last year. A fast start and even a potential early ranking should give way to an up-and-down conference slate. With a good senior quarterback in C.J. Brown, star receiver Stefon Diggs and a plucky upstart defense, there is too much talent here to not make a bowl game.
But getting there—like everything Edsall does—will not be pretty.
Prediction: 7-5 (3-5)
New Mexico State (Independent to Sun Belt)
Unlike Idaho, its partner from the former WAC that went Independent last year and moves to the Sun Belt in 2014, New Mexico State is trying to build its program the "right way"—i.e., with high school prospects who are in it for the long haul instead of with the quick fix of signing JUCO players.
This should help the Aggies in the long-term but hurt them in their first year as a member of the Sun Belt. Even after winning two games last season, they were pretty much the worst team in America and do not have much in the way of hope for improvement.
According to Phil Steele, NMSU is tied for No. 100 in the country with only 11 starters returning from last year's awful team. Even with an easy schedule, this will take another couple of years to get better.
Prediction: 1-11 (0-8)
Old Dominion (Independent to C-USA)
Old Dominion was more or less what we expected it to be in the first year of its FBS transition: scrappy on offense, porous on defense and uneven but promising on the whole.
Led by star quarterback Taylor Heinicke, a deep cast of skill-position playmakers and an offensive line that should continue to be awesome despite losing some important pieces, the Monarchs should once again be able to score points in their first year with C-USA.
The only question is whether it can disallow them.
The answer to the latter question is probably "no," but don't be surprised if ODU manages to post a winning record nonetheless.
The offense is that good, the schedule is that manageable and head coach Bobby Wilder is that good at what he does.
Don't even count out a surprise run at the C-USA title game.
Prediction: 7-5 (5-3)
Rutgers (AAC to Big Ten)
Rutgers transitions to the Big Ten at a pretty terrible time.
Rarely has the proud Scarlet Knights football program been in this much flux. Two years removed from a promising 2012 season—which included one of the best defenses in America—it enters 2014 with questions up and down the roster and on the coaching staff.
Which isn't to say that they don't have potential. They do. The roster is relatively young and very much athletic. It just didn't function like a cohesive unit often enough in 2013 to expect much improvement.
That holds doubly true considering Rutgers' schedule—which, like Maryland's, includes many of the Big Ten powers in the East division. Drawing a road game at Nebraska and a home game against Wisconsin from the West division is as difficult as it comes, too.
A bowl game in 2014 would be considered a massive success.
(Don't expect a massive success.)
Prediction: 3-9 (1-7)
Tulane (C-USA to AAC)
Hailing from the fertile recruiting ground of New Orleans, Louisiana, Tulane will always have a chance to be competitive. It got ugly for a while in the early part of the 2010s, but Curtis Johnson did an admirable job leading the turnaround last season when the Green Wave surprised to win seven games and make a bowl game.
It was lucky to win that many games, but Tulane was by no means a bad team in 2013. Especially on defense—where it finished No. 29 in the Football Outsiders defensive F/+ ratings—this team played like one of the most underrated outfits in America.
The secondary returns in relatively good shape, which should give the Green Wave a chance against the likes of Houston and Cincinnati in the AAC. However, the overall challenge of an upgrade in conference will eventually take its toll along the offensive and defensive lines.
Tulane will stay competitive and play most teams close, but after losing star receiver Ryan Grant from an offense that was already difficult to watch, the smart bet would be on modest regression.
Prediction: 4-8 (3-5)
Tulsa (C-USA to AAC)
- If sophomore Dane Evans takes a nice step forward...
- If running back James Flanders provides a nice boost in explosiveness...
- If a couple from a large batch of young receivers become semi-reliable...
- If the defense can tighten up on passing downs...
- If a dreadful punting game can become less of an outright liability...
Tulsa fell off a cliff in 2013, dropping to 3-9 overall and 2-6 in C-USA after going 11-3 and winning the conference in 2012.
So…which Tulsa team will show up in 2014?
That is a very good question.
Bill Connelly of SB Nation thinks it's possible for Tulsa to rebound despite the leap in competition from C-USA to the AAC—but doing so is contingent on some pretty big questions:
Is there any chance the Golden Hurricane can right the ship despite the competition upgrade? Possibly, though it does take quite a few ifs.
Bill Blankenship is a very good head coach, and Tulsa is a proud, historically-decent program. You can expect the Golden Hurricane to field a more competitive team in 2014 than they did the season prior.
Tulsa won't compete for a conference title, as it often did in C-USA, but it could compete for a spot in the postseason. Every non-conference game besides a home tilt with Oklahoma is winnable, so it could be halfway to postseason eligibility by the time AAC play begins.
In Blankenship I trust.
Prediction: 6-6 (3-5)
Western Kentucky (Sun Belt to C-USA)
Even before Bobby Petrino's one season with the Hilltoppers, Willie Taggart had built Western Kentucky into a fairly consistent winner.
But will that remain the case under first-time head coach Jeff Brohm in a conference that is (ostensibly) a step up in competition?
It's a difficult question to answer. Last year's Hilltoppers might have been fine against the current C-USA opposition, but who were perhaps their three best players—running back Antonio Andrews and linebackers Andrew Jackson and Xavius Boyd—have all departed.
Still, Brandon Doughty is a reliable-enough quarterback, and WKU has enough talent on defense to weather a manageable conference schedule. If Brohm pans out as a head coach, it could be the class of the rebuilt C-USA for years to come.
Prediction: 7-5 (6-2)