College Football

College Football Teams Set for Huge Turnarounds in 2016

Greg WallaceFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2016

College Football Teams Set for Huge Turnarounds in 2016

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    Tommy Armstrong hopes Nebraska can make huge gains in Mike Riley's second season.
    Tommy Armstrong hopes Nebraska can make huge gains in Mike Riley's second season.Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    The great thing about college football is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Want an example? Print out a preseason Top 25 poll and place it right next to the postseason Top 25 released following the national title game. The differences are often stark.

    Look at 2015’s Associated Press preseason Top 25: Auburn at No. 6. Georgia at No. 9. Meanwhile, Clemson lingered at No. 12 and Oklahoma stood at No. 19. We know how those rankings looked by season's end.

    Chances are, the polls released in August will look similarly shortsighted by January 2017. Highly touted teams will falter, and lightly regarded squads will rise. Which teams are in position to make the biggest turnarounds in 2016? We took a look. These squads were determined by factors like the number of starters and key starters returning, favorable schedules and overall opportunity within their respective leagues. Disagree? Let us know.

Arizona

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    Anu Solomon and Arizona hope to bounce back from a down 2015 season.
    Anu Solomon and Arizona hope to bounce back from a down 2015 season.Andres Leighton/Associated Press

    2015 was something of a disappointment for Arizona. Following a breakthrough 10-win season under Rich Rodriguez, the Wildcats battled through injuries on both sides of the ball and limped to a 7-6 season.

    However, Arizona returns 15 starters, including several important offensive weapons. Quarterback Anu Solomon missed two games with injuries and saw his stats slip as a sophomore, going from 3,793 yards to 2,667 yards passing and 28 touchdowns to 20. Sophomore tailback Nick Wilson missed four games with injuries and struggled, going from 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns to 725 yards and eight scores.

    If both are healthy, Arizona’s offense should be significantly better.

    Scooby Wright is gone from a defense that struggled without him in 2015, but the Wildcats do return seven defensive starters. If that side of the ball can take a step forward, the win total will as well.

Georgia Tech

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    Can Justin Thomas lead a Georgia Tech resurgence this season?
    Can Justin Thomas lead a Georgia Tech resurgence this season?Brett Davis/Associated Press

    Let’s not mince words. 2015 was ugly for Georgia Tech. One year removed from an 11-win season that featured an ACC Coastal Division title and an Orange Bowl win, the Yellow Jackets lost everyone that mattered at their offensive skill positions, save quarterback Justin Thomas, and slipped to 3-9.

    Thomas slipped, too. As a sophomore, he threw for 1,719 yards with 18 touchdowns against six interceptions and rushed for 1,086 yards and eight touchdowns. But last fall, he regressed, throwing for 1,345 yards with 13 touchdowns against eight interceptions, completing just 41.7 percent of his passes. His rushing stats were down significantly, as well; he rushed for 488 yards and six scores, averaging just 3.4 yards per attempt.

    A new year could mean a big step upward for the Jackets. Fifteen starters return, including everyone of consequence at receiver and in the backfield. So does Thomas. The defense must replace the entire secondary, but if the offense can gel and improve, it’ll be a huge lift.

    The Jackets must travel to Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia Tech but host Clemson with Florida State coming off the schedule. The pieces are there for a real improvement.

LSU

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    Leonard Fournette could carry LSU to national title contention.
    Leonard Fournette could carry LSU to national title contention.Bob Levey/Associated Press

    LSU finished 9-3 in 2015, but a record that would be a great year for many programs was simply unacceptable to most in Baton Rouge. The Tigers started 7-0 and were No. 2 in the College Football Playoff Top 25 heading into a showdown at Alabama. But they lost to the Tide and followed that with defeats to Ole Miss and Arkansas. Les Miles nearly lost his job, but held on after wins over Texas A&M and Texas Tech to end the season.

    However, there are plenty of reasons to believe LSU can make a huge improvement and vault into national title contention. Start with junior tailback Leonard Fournette, a legit Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the nation’s most dynamic players. Only the cancellation of the season opener vs. McNeese State due to severe storms kept Fournette from 2,000 yards; he finished with 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns, with 10 100-yard rushing games and four 200-yard efforts.

    LSU returns 17 starters, including 10 on offense, and upgraded when defensive coordinator Kevin Steele bolted for Auburn, replacing him with Wisconsin’s Dave Aranda. The Tigers face the Badgers at Lambeau Field to open the season but host both Alabama and Ole Miss in Baton Rouge. If junior Brandon Harris can take another step at quarterback, the schedule is there to make a run at an SEC title and College Football Playoff berth and validate the decision to keep Miles on board.

Nebraska

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    Mike Riley hopes more of his teachings take hold during his second year in Lincoln.
    Mike Riley hopes more of his teachings take hold during his second year in Lincoln.Nati Harnik/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Mike Riley had a rather ugly debut as Nebraska’s coach. The Cornhuskers simply couldn’t close out a close game, losing five games by five points or less. They finished the regular season 5-7, and the only thing that kept them from missing a bowl game for the third time since 1969 was a lack of six-win teams. That allowed the Huskers to make the Foster Farms Bowl, where they upended UCLA to finish the season on a high.

    There are reasons for optimism in Lincoln as Riley begins his second season. Sixteen starters return, led by quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. Armstrong threw for 3,030 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, and if he can cut down on his 16 interceptions, he can be a dangerous dual-threat QB. Leading rusher Terrell Newby also returns, as does No. 1 receiver Jordan Westerkamp (65 receptions, 918 yards, seven touchdowns).

    NU’s Big Ten schedule is palatable; the Huskers have Indiana and Maryland while avoiding Michigan State and Michigan. They must travel to Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State, but there’s ample reason to believe a significant improvement can happen in Riley’s second go-round.

Southern California

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    Adoree' Jackson leads a talented, steady Southern California roster.
    Adoree' Jackson leads a talented, steady Southern California roster.Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Southern California begins 2016 with something Trojan fans have craved for quite some time: stability. Following the Pete Carroll-fueled dynasty of the early 2000s, serious NCAA penalties crippled the program, and the ill-fated runs of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian didn’t help either. But with Clay Helton in place, USC has leadership that it can build with.

    Oh, and plenty of talent. Helton pulled the Trojans out of a tailspin and salvaged a Pac-12 South title and 8-6 record last fall, but it’s reasonable to expect more, much more, in his first full season. Helton will return 15 starters, including nine on offense, and that includes one of the nation’s top all-around talents in cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, a threat to score every time he touches the ball.

    The Trojans must replace quarterback Cody Kessler, with sophomore Max Browne pushing to become the new starter, as well as three defensive line starters and linebacker Su’a Cravens, an NFL draft departure. The schedule is not easy, with an opener against Alabama in North Texas and road trips to Stanford and Utah in September alone.

    But with a steady hand guiding the ship and a quality roster, the ceiling is much higher than 8-6.

     

Texas

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    Charlie Strong needs to win—and now—at Texas.
    Charlie Strong needs to win—and now—at Texas.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Charlie Strong enters his third season at Texas squarely on the hot seat. Under Strong’s watch, the Longhorns are 11-14 in two years, well below Longhorn fans’ lofty standards. Strong needs to win, and win right now.

    He is making changes that will help the Horns do just that. Hiring Tulsa’s Sterlin Gilbert as new offensive coordinator was a huge step. Gilbert, an Air Raid proponent, helped the Golden Hurricane offense flourish. In games he coached in 2015, Tulsa averaged 502.8 total yards, 35.9 points and 329.5 passing yards per game.

    Texas returns six offensive starters but must settle on a quarterback between Jerrod Heard, Tyrone Swoopes and Kai Locksley. All three have the skills to succeed in this offense, and Heard showed flashes of brilliance last fall.

    Seven defensive starters return, led by star sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson. A star-studded recruiting class should elevate Texas’ overall talent level as well. The schedule is favorable. Notre Dame comes to Austin, Texas, as do Baylor, TCU and West Virginia. It’s time for Strong to make a move with this team, and this group can do it.

Virginia Tech

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    Justin Fuente hopes to turn around Virginia Tech quickly.
    Justin Fuente hopes to turn around Virginia Tech quickly.Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

    When it’s time, it’s time. And despite everything Frank Beamer had accomplished at Virginia Tech, it was time. The nation’s longest-tenured coach had lost a step all around. A program that had reeled off eight consecutive 10-win seasons had slipped back into the ACC pack. Beamer’s decision to retire was his, but it was the right call for both him and the Hokies.

    Justin Fuente’s arrival from Memphis is just what Virginia Tech needed. Fresh blood. New ideas. A fast-paced offensive system that won 19 games in two years in a place which was positively moribund before his arrival.

    As Matt Murschel of the Orlando Sentinel notes, Fuente is putting his stamp on his new program.

    We’ve had a bunch of things that we’ve tried to get across – kind of the foundation for our program, the way that we would like to operate. In many ways, it’s very similar to what I think Coach Beamer has been doing here for 29 years. But the way we practice and the way our offseason is structured and the way we lift is very different and getting the kids adjusted to that and the urgency of movement and also trying to regain a little bit of hunger and a little bit of fire with our kids.

    The Hokies return eight starters on offense, and while they have an opening at quarterback, Fuente signed top junior college prospect Jerod Evans to compete with Brenden Motley and Dwayne Lawson. There are questions on the defensive line, where talented seniors Dadi Nicolas, Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall departed.

    In addition, All-American corner Kendall Fuller declared for the NFL draft after suffering an early-season torn ACL. But Bud Foster returns as defensive coordinator, and he has a track record of getting the most out of his.

    Virginia Tech will face Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway in a game expected to attract the largest crowd ever for a college football game, and travels to North Carolina and Notre Dame. But it avoids Clemson and Florida State from the ACC Atlantic rotation, which is fortunate. If Fuente can find a capable quarterback, he’s in line for a big first season in Blacksburg.

Washington

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    Myles Gaskin is poised to lead an improving Washington offense.
    Myles Gaskin is poised to lead an improving Washington offense.Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Chris Petersen’s hire at Washington was hailed with praise, given the excellent job he did at Boise State. But two years in, U-Dub’s results under Petersen have been mediocre. The Huskies are 15-12 under his watch, including a 7-6 record in 2015.

    However, there are definite reasons for optimism. Washington returns 15 starters, including two key pieces on offense. Jake Browning threw for 2,955 yards with 16 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, and tailback Myles Gaskin rushed for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman.

    Defensively, Budda Baker is poised to become one of college football’s top safeties. The schedule is manageable. Stanford and Southern California visit Seattle, while Washington visits Oregon, Utah and Arizona. There is major potential for a huge uptick in the Pacific Northwest.

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