Projecting Every College Football Conference's Surprise Team for 2014

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2014

Projecting Every College Football Conference's Surprise Team for 2014

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    At this time last year, very few people could have predicted that Auburn would play for the national title. Coming off a 3-9 record and with a new head coach, there might have been hope and optimism, but to expect what the Tigers did wasn't realistic.

    But that's how college football can be sometimes. Though most of the traditional powers tend to dominate year in and year out, each campaign a number of surprise teams come out of nowhere to put together a great season.

    Besides Auburn, Missouri also went from 5-7 the year before to reaching the SEC title game. In addition, Marshall played for the Conference USA Championship (as well as knocked off an ACC team in a bowl game) after being 5-7 in 2012. Boston College, Tulane and UNLV each went from two wins in 2012 to seven a year later, and seven other teams went from below .500 to bowl-bound.

    Who will be this year's surprise teams? Looking at the schedules and making some history-backed assumptions about the prevalence of turnarounds, we've identified one school from each FBS conference that should do far better than in 2013.

American: Tulsa

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    2013 record: 3-9, 2-6 in Conference USA

    Tulsa had won at least eight games in eight of the previous 10 years before bottoming out last year, the result of injuries and an offense that averaged only 21 points per game. Now, the Golden Hurricane move into a new league, the American, albeit one that features six other recently departed Conference USA members.

    The offense doesn't figure to be much better this year, with Tulsa breaking in new guys at quarterback, running back and No. 1 receiver. The big loss was Trey Watts, who ran for more than 3,500 yards during his career and still managed 1,329 yards and 11 touchdowns last season despite the rough year.

    Where Tulsa will plant its flag for a turnaround will be on defense, thanks to hardworking Michael Mudoh. The 5'10", 198-pound bandit linebacker/safety was all over the field in 2013, exemplifying the Hurricane's aggressive style on defense with 96 tackles as well as an interception. He's one of 11 starters returning from a year ago, while Tulsa also gets back senior safety Demarco Nelson after he missed last season because of academic ineligibility.

    The American looks very wide open with Central Florida rebuilding on offense and Louisville off to the ACC. Tulsa avoids Cincinnati and gets East Carolina at home, and the nonconference schedule is mostly winnable (except for Oklahoma, though the Hurricane do get to host that game).

    Record prediction: 7-5, 5-3 in American

ACC: North Carolina State

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    2013 record: 3-9, 0-8 in ACC

    There had been a steady decline in effect at North Carolina State even before Dave Doeren took over for Dave O'Brien before last season. Then Doeren went winless in the ACC, the first time the Wolfpack have done so since 1959.

    NC State had no depth last year, which became even more of an issue as injuries piled up all over the place. Two different quarterbacks split time because of injury and ineffectiveness, and Shadrach Thornton couldn't get enough touches at running back to be effective because his team was usually trailing. Defensively, the Wolfpack were painful to watch, allowing 38 or more points in five of the last six games.

    But Doeren's recruits are poised to turn this thing around, led by a transfer quarterback from Florida (junior Jacoby Brissett) and some young wide receivers. The same goes on the defensive side, as 4-star defensive end Kentavius Street should start right away.

    One of the things holding NC State back from making a major turnaround this year is its inclusion in the ACC's noticeably stronger division, the Atlantic. That means having to face Clemson, Florida State and Louisville, with only FSU at home. But enough other winnable games, both in the league and in a soft nonconference schedule, make at least getting back into a bowl game very possible.

    Record prediction: 7-5, 4-4 in ACC

Big 12: TCU

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    2013 record: 4-8, 2-7 in Big 12

    After more than a decade of dominance as a mid-major program, one that kept moving up the ladder through realignment and even earned two BCS bowl invites, TCU has struggled to register that same success in a power conference. The 2012 Horned Frogs went 7-6 and then last season had just their second losing record since 1997.

    TCU remained one of the better defenses in the country last year, but a lack of consistency in moving the ball prevented that defense from making a difference. The Frogs were held to 10 or fewer points three times in 2013, and even experiments such as moving Trevone Boykin from quarterback to wide receiver didn't work.

    But continued offensive overhaul has occurred during the offseason. Coach Garry Patterson brought in former Houston offensive coordinator Gary Meacham and former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie to run that side of the ball, and former Texas A&M quarterback Matt Joeckel transferred in for his senior year. Joeckel could be the answer to the Frogs' woes, as the 6'4", 240-pound passer has experience throwing early and often from his spot duty in relief of Johnny Manziel last season.

    The defense will again be stout, even with the graduation of first-round NFL draft pick Jason Verrett at cornerback, because TCU is loaded all over. The secondary will be just as good, if not better, thanks to safeties Sam Carter and Chris Hackett, while up front the return of defensive end Devonte Fields (who was the Big 12's defensive freshman of the year in 2012) from an injury-filled 2013 season will be huge.

    Record prediction: 8-4, 5-4 in Big 12

Big Ten: Michigan

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    2013 record: 7-6, 3-5 in Big Ten

    Michigan is the only team on this list that played in a bowl game last year, but the way the Wolverines were performing by the end of the season, it didn't feel like one was deserving. A promising 5-0 start quickly devolved into chaos, as Michigan either saw its offense disappear or its defense turn into a sieve.

    From scoring 145 points over one three-game span (while allowing 103, including 47 in one) to registering just 19 points over the next two contests, Michigan was all over the place in 2013. It finished on a three-game losing streak, capped by a blowout loss to Kansas State in a bowl game. Two years removed from going 11-2, coach Brady Hoke's long-term viability was being questioned.

    But in comes a top-20 recruiting class, highlighted by maybe the most noteworthy prospect Michigan has ever signed. Jabrill Peppers, a 5-star athlete from New Jersey, has the capability to start for the Wolverines on both offense and defense (as well as star on special teams). He comes in with so much hype that many people are making the case for him to start both ways.

    One guy won't do it all, though; Michigan should have some good options on offense assuming Devin Gardner comes back at full strength from his foot injury. He and Shane Morris can either share quarterback duties, or Gardner can use his skills as a runner to beef up the rushing game, while Devin Funchess is in line to be this year's Jace Amaro. All of those players will be under the tutelage of new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who was hired away from Alabama in the winter.

    Record prediction: 9-3, 6-2 in Big Ten

Conference USA: Southern Mississippi

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    2013 record: 1-11, 1-7 in Conference USA

    Southern Mississippi hadn't had a losing record in almost 20 years until 2012, when it suddenly went 0-12 after a 12-2, Conference USA-winning season. Last year was almost as bad; only an out-of-nowhere offensive explosion in the finale at UAB prevented the Golden Eagles from being the first team with back-to-back winless records since Duke in 2000-01.

    At this point, even two wins will be considered an improvement for USM, which fired Ellis Johnson after that 2012 season but held onto Todd Monken after nearly the same result.

    The Eagles offense will be run by a member of Auburn's staff from last season, though Chip Lindsey was an offensive analyst who wasn't involved in on-field activities during games. He inherits a bevy of returners, but considering what USM did, all jobs should be considered open. A youthful defense returns mostly intact as well, but that unit will need to improve quickly after allowing just shy of 42 points per game in 2013.

    Despite the 1-11 mark, USM did register the fourth-best recruiting class in Conference USA, with eight 3-star prospects coming in. And outside of nonconference trips to Alabama and Mississippi State, none of its games seems completely unwinnable based on the opponent and locale.

    Record prediction: 6-6, 4-4 in Conference USA

Mid-American: Western Michigan

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    2013 record: 1-11, 1-7 in Mid-American

    Sustained success is difficult in the MAC, but Western Michigan has managed to reach three bowl games since 2007 despite usually playing a nonconference slate that's heavy on power programs. The Broncos also have a very bad season every eight or nine years, which was the case in 2013 in P.J. Fleck's first season.

    WMU was outscored 35-17 on average, never allowing less than 26 points (to Michigan State, of all teams) and reaching 30 or more points on offense only twice. But Fleck somehow managed to spin all of that in a magical way on the recruiting trail, because his 27-player signing class ranked 70th nationally and tops in the conference.

    Now, it's a matter of what Fleck and the Broncos can do with that mid-major talent they've amassed. On offense it should center on getting promising wide receiver Corey Davis the ball as much as possible, parlaying last year's 67-catch, 941-yard, six-touchdown effort into much more. And defensive effectiveness in the MAC can be accomplished with just one or two guys (see Khalil Mack and Buffalo in 2013), so if the young front seven can make any strides, then WMU would be poised to rebound.

    It also helps that the Broncos have a lot of winnable games, not just in the bottom-heavy MAC but also early. The first two nonconference opponents, Purdue and Idaho, went 2-22 combined last year. 

    Record prediction: 7-5, 4-4 in Mid-American

Mountain West: Nevada

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    2013 record: 4-8, 3-5 in Mountain West

    Nevada had been one of the most consistent mid-major programs in the country since 2005, registering eight straight bowl appearances that included a stellar 13-1 season in 2010 behind some guy named Colin Kaepernick. But last year saw a major regression, which happened to coincide with the second retirement of Chris Ault.

    A year after having one of the most effective run games in the country, thanks to Ault's patented pistol offense, injuries to quarterback Cody Fajardo and others led to major production setbacks. With that, combined with an ineffective defense and a schedule that featured eight teams that would play in bowl games, it was basically a lost season.

    Fajardo should be healthy for his senior year, though because of his fragile past he's apt to throw more than Nevada quarterbacks have in the past. He completed 67.8 percent of his passes a year ago, averaging better than seven yards per attempt, so he's capable of being more of a pass-first guy.

    A lot will come down to whether the Wolf Pack can shore up the defense, which will start with the play of end Brock Hekking and his eccentric personality. But at least the schedule is a lot less treacherous, with trips to UCLA and Florida State in 2013 replaced by Washington State (at home) and Arizona.

    Record prediction: 9-3, 6-1 in Mountain West

Pac-12: Colorado

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    2013 record: 4-8, 1-8 in Pac-12

    With the Pac-12 qualifying nine of its teams for bowl games last year, there are slim pickings for someone to qualify as a "surprise." And short of a middle-tier team challenging for a division or conference title (something we don't see happen, thanks to the strength at the top of the Pac-12), Colorado gets the nod based on its recent futility and the likelihood that said futility can end this season.

    Last year's Colorado team was actually the "best" since 2010, a relative term to describe a program that has eight wins over the last three seasons. Mike MacIntyre came over from San Jose State and made some progress, and he has some promising young players to build around such as quarterback Sefo Liufau, running back Michael Adkins II and linebacker Addison Gillam.

    All of those players were freshmen in 2013. Gillam was the best of the lot, starting right away as a true freshman and registering 107 tackles, three sacks and an interception. That young group will help offset what wasn't a very good recruiting class, finishing 74th overall and behind the likes of Temple and Western Michigan.

    The schedule is also kind early, allowing the Buffaloes to build momentum for a tough stretch in the middle.

    Record prediction: 7-5, 4-5 in Pac-12

SEC: Arkansas

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    2013 record: 3-9, 0-8 in SEC

    Arkansas had a good thing going until Bobby Petrino's off-field antics set the program back in a big way. The Razorbacks went from 10- and 11-win seasons in 2010 and 2011 to a combined seven victories the past two years under interim coach John L. Smith and Bret Bielema in 2013.

    The team that Bielema piloted last season wasn't his in most ways, aside from the Big Ten-influenced approach to running the ball and defense. The players were from the old regime, and it contributed to the program's first winless run in league play since joining the SEC in 1992.

    Bielema is committed to a slower tempo, which is why he's continued to build his offense around the ground game. Despite only scoring 20.7 points per game last year, the Razorbacks had two running backs gain 900-plus yards, with true freshman Alex Collins going for 1,026. Both he and Jonathan Williams were named to the Maxwell Award watch list, as good an indication as any that Arkansas will be a run-heavy team.

    If the Hogs defense can pick up a little of the slack, this approach will work even as teams become more fast-paced. They have the unenviable task of opening against three uptempo teams (Auburn, Texas Tech and Texas A&M) in the first five games, but there are enough potential wins on the schedule to at least get back into a bowl game.

    Record prediction: 6-6, 4-4 in SEC

Sun Belt: South Alabama

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    2013 record: 6-6, 4-3 in Sun Belt

    We're wrapping things up with a team that will provide a different kind of surprise from the rest of this list. South Alabama's projected success this season won't be much of a shock to those in the know in the Sun Belt, based on how it fared in league play last year, but the Jaguars will surprise the rest of the country when people realize this program has only existed since 2009.

    It's a similar history to that of UTSA in Conference USA, but that program has a built-in metropolitan fanbase and is led by a head coach in Larry Coker who won a national title with Miami (Fla.). South Alabama is piloted by Joey Jones, a 51-year-old who prior to this job was a longtime high school coach who also helped start a program at Division III Birmingham-Southern in 2007.

    South Alabama brings back almost its entire offense, a unit that averaged 29 points per game and scored 41 on Tulane's great defense and another 30 against league champion Louisiana-Lafayette. The Jaguars have a big hole at quarterback, but with the right guy, they can thrive offensively again. The same goes with the defense, where there were more departures but a strong nucleus still exists.

    The Jaguars get a chance to make a real splash early, hosting Mississippi State on Sept. 6. Even without a win in that game, though, being invited to a bowl looks very possible.

    Record prediction: 8-4, 6-2 in Sun Belt


    All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.