Projecting Every College Football Conference's Surprise Team for 2015
There's another TCU out there in college football this year. Another Memphis, too. There's probably even a few Air Forces and Louisiana Techs and maybe another Georgia Southern.
What do all of those teams have in common? Their performances in 2014 turned out to be major surprises, especially considering how they fared the season before.
It's an annual occurrence in college football: the prevalence of "surprise" teams who seemingly come out of nowhere to either win or contend for their conference title or even make a run at the national title.
TCU was 4-8 in 2013, then a year later went 12-1 and on the cusp of the playoffs. Memphis went from 3-9 to 10-3 and American Athletic Conference co-champions, while Air Force and Louisiana Tech won a combined 19 games in 2014 after going a collective 6-18 the year before.
Georgia Southern might have been the biggest surprise of them all, winning nine games (including every one of its Sun Belt contests) in its first season of FBS play.
Who will be those surprise teams for the 2015 season? After looking at the schedules and factoring in this continuing cyclical trend, we've selected one potential breakout from each of the 10 FBS conferences. To be considered a surprise, the team must have finished at or below .500 and failed to make a bowl game in 2014.
Check them out, then add in your own predictions in the comments section.
2014 record: 3-9, 1-7
There were only three schools in the ACC that failed to make a bowl game in 2014, so the surprise options are limited. Syracuse looks to be the best option to reverse its performance from last season, especially since the player whose absence triggered last year's collapse is back and ready to shine again.
The Orange were 2-2 and were headed for a third straight loss when quarterback Terrel Hunt suffered a broken leg at home against Louisville. That took their only source of consistent production off the field, and an already struggling offense hit rock bottom, scoring just 97 points over the final seven games.
Hunt returned for spring ball and looked much like his old self, which in 2013 helped Syracuse go 7-6 and win the Texas Bowl, thanks to his mobility. He and his teammates should benefit from a soft start to the 2015 schedule and could potentially start 6-1 before running into a rough stretch in late October.
The Orange might not be able to win more than six games this season, but after recording their worst record since 2008, it would still mark a significant improvement.
2014 record: 1-11, 1-7
Things can only get better for the worst team in college football from a year ago. The only way they could get worse is if SMU went the UAB route and shut down its program, which wouldn't have seemed unreasonable after the Mustangs ranked second-to-last in offense and almost as bad on defense.
The arrival of Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris as head coach—replacing June Jones, who bailed on SMU less than two weeks into the 2014 season—should breathe life into a team that had been on a downward trend for several years. Morris orchestrated some dynamic offenses at Clemson, and while he doesn't have nearly the same talent to work with in Dallas, he does have a scheme and approach that has the potential to make waves.
"The offense will be better and infinitely more fun," SB Nation's Bill Connelly wrote. "The defense won't be worse. That means SMU will be ahead of where it was for most of last year."
The Mustangs' schedule features a slew of potential wins, thanks to the weakness of the American Athletic Conference's lower half, and while six opponents won at least eight games in 2014, another four won just a combined 13 games last season.
SMU probably won't go bowling, but it also won't be at the bottom of the FBS (or even the AAC) this year.
Big 12: Texas Tech
2014 record: 4-8, 2-7
Throughout the Mike Leach era, it didn't matter how porous Texas Tech's defense was, because it had an offense that could score with anybody. It stood to reason the same would be the case under Kliff Kingsbury, one of Leach's many prolific quarterbacks, but even worse defense than normal and an overabundance of turnovers spelled the Red Raiders' doom last season.
Giveaways are hard to coach away, but even the slightest uptick on the defensive side should be enough to get Texas Tech back on track as long as quarterback Patrick Mahomes maintains the level he showed toward the end of his true freshman year. Mahomes threw for 1,319 yards and 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions over the final three games of 2014, and the baseball/football standout figures to beat out Davis Webb for the starting job during training camp.
Tech also has one of its best stable of running backs since the late 1990s, with the top three returners averaging better than 6.1 yards per carry last year.
The Red Raiders have the unenviable task of opening Big 12 play against TCU and Baylor (right after visiting Arkansas), then things get much easier and set up well for a bounce-back year.
Big Ten: Purdue
2014 record: 3-9, 1-7
Darrell Hazell's first two seasons at Purdue have been the program's worst since the mid-1990s, making him look like a major bust after being plucked from Kent State following a big 2012.
Mid-American Conference darlings frequently don't pan out when moving to the Big Ten, but the Boilermakers might be on the cusp of getting back into the bowl picture this year if a few things go their way.
Avoiding the injury big would help significantly, since the loss of key players during the second half of last season led to a major collapse. Getting consistent quarterback play is essential, too, and with Danny Etling transferring to LSU, the burden is on Austin Appleby to be more careful with the ball or else be overtaken by a freshman.
Purdue's offense probably won't wow anybody, but if the defense can contribute, this could be a team that muddies its way to six victories.
It doesn't have the kind of schedule to make this rise an easy one, though, as the Boilermakers face nine teams that bowled in 2014, and even their FCS opponent (Indiana State) is no slouch.
Conference USA: Old Dominion
2014 record: 6-6, 4-4
Old Dominion wasn't bowl-eligible last season because it was still transitioning from the FCS ranks, but with Conference USA's dearth of bowl bids, the Monarchs weren't going to be selected anyway. Even if the newly approved Arizona Bowl gets played this year, that will still only make for six spots for the 13-team league.
But Old Dominion's quick rise from nonexistence to contention should continue in 2015 and make this a non-issue. The program was started up in 2009, and last year's record was its worst from a win-loss standpoint, though it was the first against a full slate of FBS opponents.
The Monarchs graduated quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who threw for more than 15,000 yards in his career, but the same fast-and-furious offense exists, and soo to does a plethora of skill-position weapons. There's not much to rave about on the defensive side, but C-USA as a whole isn't known for its defense, so that's a wash.
If not for the fact it's stuck in the same division as league powers Marshall and Western Kentucky, Old Dominion would be a decent candidate to win the conference. Instead, it might have to settle for winning eight or nine games and its first bowl appearance.
2014 record: 3-9, 3-5
To this point, the FBS move hasn't looked like the wisest decision made by Massachusetts' athletic department. The Minutemen have won five games in three seasons and after this year will be forced into independent purgatory when the Mid-American boots them out of the league.
But not before UMass makes a run at the very winnable East Division, thanks to a quarterback who ranked fourth in FBS in passing yards per game in 2014 and a future pro at wide receiver.
The Blake Frohnapfel-Tajae Sharpe combination was big last year and should be even bigger this fall. Had Frohnapfel not missed UMass' final two games because of injury, it might have gone 5-7, but with both back for a final season the Minutemen will be able to contend for at least a bowl bid, if not also a spot in the MAC title game.
UMass lucks out by only having to face one of the West Division's tougher teams, and it gets Toledo at home. That's one of just four opponents that reached six wins in 2014, and with 19 projected starters coming back, this team is primed for a breakthrough.
Mountain West: San Jose State
2014 record: 3-9, 2-6
The usual definition a "surprise" team is one that brings back a lot of starters from the year before, is getting key players back from injury or has completely revamped its schemes. It's far less often that the surprise comes mostly from an instant recruiting impact, especially outside of the power conferences.
But if San Jose State is able to make a leap this year, it will very likely be the product of a shockingly good 2015 recruiting class.
The Spartans' 23 signees for this year ranked 58th in the nation, according to 247Sports, and while they weren't the highest-rated non-power program (that was Boise State, at 56th) they did out-recruit bowl teams Boston College, Iowa, Minnesota and Pittsburgh.
The haul includes several guys who were sought after by power programs, including receivers Kanya Bell and Jeremy Kelly, all-purpose back Malik Roberson and cornerback Taeon Mason. All of them should play right away, and San Jose State has some other returning pieces on offense that should make for a fun group, now under the guidance of veteran coordinator Al Borges.
San Jose plays on the weaker side of the Mountain West, avoids Colorado State and Utah State in crossover games and gets Boise State at home to end the year. It also hosts West favorites Fresno State and San Diego State, as well as BYU.
Pac-12: Oregon State
2014 record: 5-7, 2-7
Gary Andersen had to have more reasons for leaving a pretty nice situation at Wisconsin for a much less certain one at Oregon State than wanting to return to his Western roots, right?
Could he have seen something about the Beavers in the short time between when Mike Riley left for Nebraska and he opted to leave the Badgers—a span of just six days, with a really bad performance in the Big Ten title game wedged in there for good measure—to warrant making such a bold move?
According to Sports Illustrated's Lindsay Schnell, Andersen took the OSU job simply on faith, believing it had "everything you need to be successful" despite having not visited the school in any capacity since being Utah's defensive coordinator on a 2007 team that lost to the Beavers.
The sudden departure from Madison appears to have paid off for Bret Bielema, though because of the strength of the SEC West it took until his second season to break through at Arkansas. Andersen has a chance to make it a one-year turnaround, especially if he's able to successfully transition the personnel from a pro-style offense to his spread attack.
The Beavers have a mostly manageable schedule, with Stanford, UCLA and Washington coming to Corvallis and games against all three of the other Pac-12 teams that didn't have a winning record last season. They also get a chance to be early-season dream-crushers by serving as Jim Harbaugh's first home opponent at Michigan.
2014 record: 5-7, 2-6
Our qualifier—that a "surprise" team must have not gone bowling in 2014—makes Kentucky the winner by default in the SEC, since the only other team in the league that didn't get to six wins last season was Vanderbilt, and it's not close to sniffing .500 yet under Derek Mason.
Kentucky should have made a bowl last year but completely fell apart in the second half of the season, dropping six in a row and allowing nearly 44 points per game in the process. Granted, that came against teams who were a collective 55-24, but coach Mark Stoops has said his players have learned their lesson about the importance of finishing.
"The players understand what they can do," Stoops told Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio. "This third year, as we move forward, I think that the nice thing is the players clearly understand what we expect of them."
Expectations are one thing, but the Wildcats also don't have as back-loaded a schedule, and if they can navigate a four-game stretch against Auburn, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Georgia without it breaking their spirit, they'll be bowling.
Sun Belt: Troy
2014 record: 3-9, 3-5
It's a new era at Troy, and just at the right time.
Larry Blakeney's 24-year run with the Trojans piloted the program from Division II to FBS but had fizzled out the last few seasons, making the expectations for new coach Neal Brown the kind that won't be hard to exceed in 2015.
Brown spent four seasons on the staff of some of Blakeney's best teams, from 2006-09, and has developed a good reputation as an offensive specialist. Now he takes over a program that is in the middle of a wide-open league beyond the top few teams.
Quarterback Brandon Silvers showed a lot of promise once taking over the starting job as a freshman last year, completing 70.5 percent of his passes (which ranked second-best in the nation) with just three interceptions in 271 attempts. If that continues this year, Troy will have an opportunity to get back to six wins.
The Sun Belt routinely has more .500-or-better teams than bowl spots, but with two slots in Alabama-based bowls, the Trojans will likely get an invite if they're eligible.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.