Predicting College Football's Cinderellas for 2015 Season
Who is college football's Cinderella?
It has to be someone—doesn't it? TCU finished 4-8 in 2013 and ranked No. 7 in last year's Preseason Big 12 media poll, but that didn't stop it from going 12-1 and winning the Peach Bowl.
The five teams that follow stand the best chance of following TCU's footsteps. Based on how many players they return, which players they return, the changes they made this offseason and myriad statistical factors, they have the highest ceilings of all under-the-radar teams, i.e., the best chance to win 10 games and make an Access Bowl.
One important team we omitted: Michigan. Why? It feels wrong calling the winningest program in college football history "Cinderella." Yes, the Wolverines went 5-7 in 2014, but they're also only three years removed from winning the Sugar Bowl.
These other teams are starving for success.
California Golden Bears
Passing offense. Jared Goff is one of the five best quarterbacks in college football and looks like a future first-round draft pick. Around him, the Bears return seven of their eight 250-yard receivers. Head coach Sonny Dykes learned under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, and this passing game has the skill to make a run a la the 2008 Red Raiders.
Defense. Every single part of it. The Bears ranked No. 124 in total yards allowed (511.8) and No. 121 in available yards allowed (58.5 percent) last season. They struggled in the trenches, at the second level and in the secondary en route to allowing 39.8 points per game.
Cal returns nine defensive starters: three along the defensive line, three at linebacker and three in the secondary. Only one of last year's 13 leading tacklers (defensive back Michael Lowe) was a senior. The Bears couldn't stop a nose bleed in 2014, but with untested freshmen and sophomores becoming game-tested juniors and seniors, there's reason to expect improvement.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
How they closed last season. According to Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall, the Wolfpack finished with the No. 8 F/+ rating in America during the fourth quarter of the year, when they beat North Carolina and Central Florida. The offense in particular looked solid, which should carry over to 2015, when NC State returns nine starters.
Third-down defense. NC State could not get off the field last season, allowing teams to convert 48.5 percent of their offensive third downs. As a result, the Wolfpack finished No. 127 in the country in methodical drives allowed: opponents ran 10 or more plays on 23 percent of their possessions. Troy was the only FBS team that fared worse.
Those third-down numbers seem fluky. NC State finished No. 66 in the country in defensive success rate, so it's not like teams were having their way on first and second down to establish easy third downs. Rather, the Wolfpack held their own on first and second down; they just couldn't get over the hump. As long as they keep on schedule, these numbers should normalize.
Offensive balance. Pittsburgh has a Heisman candidate at running back (James Conner), an All-American candidate at wide receiver (Tyler Boyd) and one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the ACC (Chad Voytik). According to the S&P+ ratings at Football Outsiders, it finished top-30 in rush offense, pass offense, on standard downs and on passing downs last season. There's nothing it doesn't do well.
Forcing negative plays. The Panthers finished No. 99 in havoc rate last season, recording either a tackle for loss, forced fumble or defended pass on just 13.5 percent of defensive snaps. Unsurprisingly, they also ranked No. 116 in forced turnovers with 14 in 13 games.
Pitt hired former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to replace head coach Paul Chryst. Narduzzi won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach two years ago and is known for his aggressive style. For the sake of comparison: Last year's Spartans finished No. 9 in havoc rate, recording either a tackle for loss, forced fumble or defended pass on 20.1 percent of defensive snaps, and as a result ranked No. 3 in forced turnovers with 34 in 13 games.
Rushing the passer. Tennessee adds three top-55 recruits (Kahlil McKenzie, Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle) to a defensive line that already includes Derek Barnett (my choice as last year's top freshman defender), Danny O'Brien and Corey Vereen. Meanwhile, linebacker Curt Maggitt finished No. 12 in the country with 11 sacks last season, when the Vols finished with a Top 40 havoc rate.
Pass protection. The Vols lost all five starting offensive lineman from 2013, and while the rebuilt unit performed admirably in the running game, it struggled to keep its quarterbacks upright. Tennessee finished No. 118 in the country and last in the SEC in adjusted sack rate, which was the biggest factor holding back its offense.
Experience. Tennessee returns four starting offensive linemen and should benefit from playing so many young bodies last season. It also returns Dontavius Blair, the No. 8 overall JUCO recruit in 2014, who redshirted last season but has the upside to start at left tackle. Right guard Jashon Robertson made the 2014 SEC All-Freshman Team and, in the words of Bleacher Report's Brad Shepard, "appears to be a rising star."
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Offense. Texas Tech returns nine starters from a unit that gained 504.1 yards per game. It has two proven quarterbacks (Patrick Mahomes, Davis Webb), two proven running backs (Justin Stockton, DeAndre Washington), a 900-yard wide receiver (Jakeem Grant), an All-America-caliber left tackle (Le'Raven Clark) and one of the best offensive head coaches (Kliff Kingsbury) in the country.
Defense. Texas Tech played even worse than Cal last season, ranking No. 125 in total defense (512.7 yards per game) and No. 126 in scoring defense (41.3 points per game). Rush end Pete Robertson led the Big 12 in sacks, but other than him this defense was lifeless—especially up the middle, where offenses routinely pushed it around.
All hope starts with defensive coordinator David Gibbs, whom Texas Tech hired away from Houston in January. The Cougars forced more turnovers (73) the past two seasons than any team in the country, whereas Texas Tech (34) ranked toward the bottom.
"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."
As far as personnel goes, the Red Raiders add inside linebacker Mike Mitchell, the No. 58 overall recruit in 2013, who transferred from Ohio State last offseason and took a redshirt in 2014. They also add defensive tackle Breiden Fehoko, the No. 50 overall recruit in 2015 and one of the strongest high schoolers we've ever seen. If that doesn't shore up the middle of the defense, it's unclear if anything will.