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Who Will Be the Out-of-Nowhere College Football Playoff Contender in 2015?

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2015

LUBBOCK, TX - OCTOBER 18: Jakeem Grant #11 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders  carries the ball against the Kansas Jayhawks on October 18, 2014 at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas. Texas Tech won the game 34-21.(Photo by John Weast/Getty Images)
John Weast/Getty Images

TCU went 4-8 in 2013 before contending to make the College Football Playoff. Auburn went 3-9 in 2012 before making the BCS National Championship Game.

The point here being that in college football, teams rise from the bottom to the top with regularity. This isn't English soccer or *cough* the NBA. An out-of-nowhere team can contend—and often does contend—for the ultimate prize in the sport.

ran this exercise after last season, trying to find which team would be "the Auburn of 2014." I'd like to say I came pretty close. The four losing teams I studied included TCU, Arkansas and West Virginia, although I sadly also had high hopes for Florida.

This year I have slightly tweaked the process, accounting for a common thread between Auburn and TCU. For the most part, though, the factors for progression stayed the same.

Which team that didn't make a bowl game in 2014 has the best chance of making the College Football Playoff next season?

Sound off at the bottom and let me know what you think. 

The First Factor: 2014 Performance

Steve Helber/Associated Press/Associated Press

There are two types of out-of-nowhere contenders: the type that truly turns their season around, and the type that played better than their record one year prior.

Auburn in 2013 qualifies as the former. It was exactly as bad in 2012 as its 3-9 record indicated—and maybe even worse. It went from No. 105 in the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders to No. 4.

TCU in 2014 qualifies as the latter. It wasn't nearly as bad in 2013 as its 4-8 record indicated, ranking No. 44 in the F/+ ratings. The same can be said of Utah, which missed a bowl despite finishing No. 31.

Per the F/+ ratings, here are the six best power conference teams that finished the regular season with a losing record in 2014:

Best Power-Five Teams With Losing Records in 2014
RecordF/+ OverallF/+ OffenseF/+ Defense
<strong>Virginia</strong>5-7<strong>41</strong>7116
<strong>Michigan</strong>5-7<strong>58</strong>7741
<strong>California</strong>5-7<strong>59</strong>3590
<strong>Oregon State</strong>5-7<strong>70</strong>5284
<strong>Northwestern</strong>5-7<strong>72</strong>9044
<strong>Texas Tech</strong>4-8<strong>77</strong>42111
Source: Football Outsiders

No team here qualifies as a true lurking giant, although Virginia compares closely with TCU in 2013. The Horned Frogs last season had the No. 94 offense and the No. 12 defense and finished three spots lower than the Wahoos. That is something to keep an eye on.

To be honest, though, none of these teams deserved to make a bowl game. They were all as below-average as their records indicate. But for some teams, playing below-average football is an improvement. For others, playing below-average football is a regression.

Which brings us to our second factor.

The Second Factor: Five-Year Performance

Dave Martin/Associated Press

"The strongest indicator of how a college football team will perform in the upcoming season is their performance in recent seasons."

The above quote is a "basic" at Football Outsiders. It explains their methodology for college predictions, which use not only one year's performance but five years of data to analyze teams.

They elaborate on that process as follows:

It may seem strange because graduation enforces constant player turnover, but college football teams are actually much more consistent from year to year than NFL teams. Thanks in large part to consistency in recruiting, teams can be expected to play within a reasonable range of their baseline program expectations each season.

Our Program F/+ ratings, which represent a rolling five-year period of play-by-play and drive efficiency data, have an extremely strong (.76) correlation with the next year’s F/+ rating.

The point here is avoiding recency bias. It is tempting, after one bad season, to forget how well a program has performed in the past. But one bad season can be chalked up to myriad factors—injuries, close-game luck, etc. The five-year sample is a little more telling.

This is why Arkansas, TCU, Florida and West Virginia made last year's version of this article. They all finished with losing records in 2013, but they all enjoyed success the four years prior. And they all played better (some more so than others) in 2014.

Here is how the six teams above have fared over a five-year sample:

How Dark Horse Contenders Have Performed Since 2010
RecordRankF/+ RatingRank
<strong>Virginia</strong>23-38<strong>5</strong>-3.2%<strong>5</strong>
<strong>Michigan</strong>38-26<strong>1</strong>12.1%<strong>1</strong>
<strong>California</strong>21-40<strong>6</strong>-5.6%<strong>6</strong>
<strong>Northwestern</strong>33-30<strong>2</strong>0.9%<strong>3</strong>
<strong>Oregon State</strong>29-23<strong>4</strong>3.4%<strong>2</strong>
<strong>Texas Tech</strong>33-30<strong>2</strong>0.3%<strong>4</strong>
Source: Football Outsiders

Michigan, predictably, stands out.

The Wolverines finished No. 37 in the F/+ ratings in 2013, No. 20 in 2012 and No. 9 during their Sugar Bowl run in 2011.

The steady decline in performance is disconcerting, but that they ranked so high so recently gives hope for the future. So does the fact that, according to Bud Elliot of SB Nation, they have recruited at a top-10 level despite their failings the past few seasons.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Beneath the Wolverines, teams like Oregon State, Northwestern and Texas Tech have all been slightly above average since 2010, and they've all had their highlights. The Beavers went 9-4 and were at one point ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press poll in 2012. Northwestern won 10 games that same season. The Red Raiders have won eight games in three of the past five years.

Virginia and Cal were better than Oregon State, Northwestern and Texas Tech in 2014, but they fail the longevity test. That doesn't mean they can't or won't contend for the playoff—in Cal's case, especially, there are reasons to believe they can.

But they'll have to overcome the odds to get there.

The Third Factor: Turnover Regression

Nov 29, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Tech Red Raiders defensive back Tevin Madison (20) breaks up a pass intended for Baylor Bears running back Corey Coleman (1) during the second half at AT&T Stadium. The Bears defeated the Red Raiders 48-46. Mandator
USA TODAY Sports

"Turnover luck" is a shorthand definition for something a tad more complex. Good teams create turnovers, and bad teams fall victim to turnovers, and a lot of that is skill and discipline.

But a lot of that is also, for lack of a better term, random.

The ball takes a weird bounce on the turf. A defensive end bats the ball into the air instead of down to the ground. A safety drops a pass he should have caught. All of these things happen with regularity, but they're difficult for teams to control.

Because turnovers have such a massive impact on a game, however, certain outcomes are decided, in effect, by randomness. If the ball keeps bouncing the wrong way, a team that might have otherwise won seven or eight games might instead win four or five.

Hence, teams with fluky turnover margins tend to regress or progress to the mean the following season. Florida State, for example, finished No. 2 in the country with a plus-17 turnover margin in 2013. It finished No. 104 with a minus-six turnover margin in 2014. That is one of many reasons this year's 'Noles were not as good as last year's.

Here is how our bounce-back candidates stack up:

Dark Horse Contenders 2014 Turnover Margin
FUM GainINT GainFUM LostINT LostTO Margin
<strong>Michigan</strong>55818<strong><font color="red">-16</strong>
<strong>Texas Tech</strong>961018<strong><font color="red">-13</strong>
<strong>California</strong>5121010<strong><font color="red">-3</strong>
<strong>Northwestern</strong>1215914<strong><font color="green">+4</strong>
<strong>Oregon State</strong>71168<strong><font color="green">+4</strong>
<strong>Virginia</strong>1415816<strong><font color="green">+5</strong>
Source: cfbstats.com

Texas Tech is an interesting case study. The Red Raiders struggle consistently with turnovers, having accrued a margin of minus-40 the past three seasons.

The easy stance to take is one of scapegoating: Kliff Kingsbury's system is too aggressive. He's too reckless. He doesn't train his players to take care of the ball. As long as he's in Lubbock, Tech will struggle with turnovers.

But the opposite stance suggests something different: that Texas Tech is "due" for a year of good turnover luck. Kingsbury has, after all, entrusted the offense to true freshman quarterbacks for most of the past two seasons. Whether Davis Webb or Patrick Mahomes starts in 2015, Tech will have more experience under center than it's had at any point since Kingsbury was hired.

There are reasons to believe in the defense next season, also.

Which brings us to our fourth (and final) point. 

The Lurking Factor: Coaching Changes

ANN ARBOR, MI - DECEMBER 30:  Jim Harbaugh speaks as he is introduced as the new Head Coach of the University of Michigan football team at the Junge Family Champions Center on December 30, 2014 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Image
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It doesn't take long to find the common thread between Auburn in 2013 and TCU in 2014.

Both teams made massive schematic changes.

Auburn hired Gus Malzahn as its head coach and Rhett Lashlee as its offensive coordinator and fixed its weaker unit to a staggering degree. TCU hired Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham as its co-offensive coordinators and fixed its weaker unit to a staggering degree.

Three of our six candidates fit the profile for next season.

First—and most noteworthy—Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh to be its new head coach. His track record at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers precedes him, and the fact that he brought his former offensive line coach, Tim Drevno, over from USC to be his offensive coordinator should help Michigan fix its weakest area (the trenches).

Nov 15, 2014; Corvallis, OR, USA; Oregon State Beavers new football coach Gary Andersen (center) poses for a photo with athletic director Bob De Carolis (left) and president Edward Ray during a press conference at Reser Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Susan Ra
USA TODAY Sports

Oregon State, meanwhile, hired Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen after longtime boss Mike Riley left for Nebraska. It's hard to say for sure whether this was an upgrade or a lateral move, but it should be noted that Andersen is 29-9 the past three seasons (two in Madison, one at Utah State) and has a run-first mentality that fits the personnel in Corvallis, which includes star running back Storm Woods and five returning starters along the offensive line.

Finally, Texas Tech hired Houston defensive coordinator David Gibbs, whose attacking style helped the Cougars lead the country with 73 forced turnovers the past two seasons. Whether or not you believe in turnover luck, that is something. And even if the turnovers subside, Gibbs should bring a spark to the TTU defense.

"What they [Gibbs and new TTU defensive assistant Zac Spavital] were able to accomplish in their short time at the University of Houston is incredible," Kingsbury said in an official statement. "... Coach Gibbs will bring experience and ingenuity to our defensive unit."

Ingenuity turned a stale TCU offense into a playoff-worthy unit in 2014. Why can't it do the same for a stale TTU defense?

Might Texas have two turnarounds in a row?

In Conclusion

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

From the factors above, two teams stand out as potential out-of-nowhere playoff contenders: Michigan and Texas Tech.

The subjective part of me would offer Cal as a reasonable candidate, but the Bears don't fit the trends of this study. Sonny Dykes is a great head coach, Jared Goff is a great quarterback and the offense is dripping with potentially great skill players, but there's no precedent for a team with such a low five-year F/+ rating to contend at the national level. They might be next year's Utah or something.

But they won't be next year's Auburn or TCU.

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 13: Derrick Green #27 of the Michigan Wolverines scores on a one yard run during the first half of the game against Miami University Redhawks at Michigan Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Leon Halip
Leon Halip/Getty Images

The ultimate choice between Michigan and Texas Tech comes down to a matter of semantics. The Wolverines have a better chance to be good than the Red Raiders, and they fit the parameters of the study because they didn't make a bowl game this season.

But are we really willing to call Michigan, the winningest program in college football history, an "out-of-nowhere" contender? Is it really going to come from "out of nowhere?" Can we really say that with a straight face after Harbaugh decorates TV screens and magazine covers all offseason?

For posterity, I'd like to say the Wolverines are the most likely non-bowl team to make next year's playoff. But it's hard for me to call them a dark horse. This is Michigan. It's not coming out of nowhere. It's coming from the loudest 5-7 season in America.

The truest out-of-nowhere contender is Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are an active punch line—Kingsbury signed a contract extension for how long?!—but have the pieces in place to go far.

They have two capable quarterbacks. Both leading rushers return. So do seven of the top eight pass-catchers and (potentially) four starters along the offensive line. All-Big 12 tackle Le'Raven Clark has yet to declare for the NFL draft, and he still might, but the thought of his return makes this offense look scary on paper.

Also coming back next year (potentially) is Big 12 sack leader Pete Robertson at outside linebacker and all-conference honorable mentions J.J. Gaines and Justis Nelson in the secondary. That and the addition of inside linebacker Mike Mitchell, a former top-60 recruit who sat out in 2014 after transferring from Ohio State, gives Gibbs some pieces to work with in his first year with the defense.

Texas Tech has lost 13 of 18 games since starting 7-0 last season, but why look at the glass as three-fourths empty? The glass is also one-fourth full! Texas Tech was on a seven-game winning streak!

The Raiders play TCU at home and Baylor on a neutral field next season. They have a chance to score a quality nonconference road win at Arkansas. They weren't very good in 2014, but neither was TCU in 2013 nor Auburn in 2012. These things happen. It's football.

It's college football.

Guns Up! for 2015.

Note: Recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeigh35

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