For 2017, instead of previewing conferences division-by-division, I decided to rank the 64 Power Five teams and count down from the bottom.
I created a ranking system based heavily off of Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings: half of the ranking comes from the S&P rankings from the past five seasons among Power Five teams (1/3 of that number is 2016’s ranking; 1/3 is the average from 2014-2016, 1/3 is the average from 2012-2016); half comes from two component parts of his 2017 S&P+ projections, weighed evenly – recruiting impact and returning production – and ranked 1 through 64. The ranking itself skews towards emphasizing where the teams were according the 2016 S&P+. I think it serves as a decent way to sequence these previews.
(Note: I didn’t include Notre Dame)
Previously: #64 Purdue, #63 Rutgers, #62 Kansas, #61 Illinois, #60 Boston College, #59 Virginia, #58 Vanderbilt, #57 Syracuse.
#6 Big Ten East, #11 Big Ten
6-7 (3-6) in 2016
Not long after joining the Big Ten, Maryland fired Randy Edsall and brought in first-time head coach DJ Durkin – who’s coached under both Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer. Durkin reached a bowl game in his first season in College Park last season; Walt Bell made due as the offensive coordinator despite QB Perry Hillis’s injury issues and has an explosive group of RBs – Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison were impressive last year and they’re joined by the best recruit in Maryland’s class, Anthony McFarland, another small back with elite speed. Whether they can find a quarterback following Hillis’s departure is an open question, but their run game should overwhelm lesser opponents again in 2017.
Durkin’s background is on the defensive side of the ball, though the unit was mediocre a year ago – completely collapsing against Michigan and Ohio State (the Terps were outscored 121-6 in consecutive November weeks). They had a decent pass rush, but injuries devastated the secondary and the pass defense as a whole was poor. Maryland was even worse against the run, giving up 4.8 yards a carry over the course of the season and constantly dealing with second-and-short or third-and-short situations because of the line’s inability to hold up. The top two tacklers by far – LBs Jermaine Carter and Shane Cockerille – return, and they’ll need to make more of those tackles closer to the line of scrimmage.
Durkin’s recruited well since arriving in College Park, and so far, that’s where he’s been most valuable; even if they won’t come close to matching Ohio State or Michigan’s talent and are still a ways behind Penn State, their roster is trending up – and the Terps could have significantly better players than most of their opponents soon.
Winning the Big Ten East over those blue-bloods would be quite difficult, and Maryland still needs a year or two to get up to speed under Durkin, but they could carve out a space in the second tier in the conference if early returns wind up being predictive: they doubled their win total in year one and have been recruiting better than anyone in the Big Ten West. 2017 may be a slight step back, but things are trending up.
#6 Pac-12 South, #12 Pac-12
3-9 (1-8) in 2016
In 2014, it seemed as if Arizona had broken through under third-year coach Rich Rodriguez. The Wildcats finished 8-5 in each of his first two seasons, but the program took a leap to ten regular season wins, including an upset victory over playoff-bound Oregon on the road. The Wildcats won the Pac-12 South (and were obliterated by Oregon in the conference championship game rematch before losing to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl) and finished with double digit wins for just the third time since joining the then-Pac-10 back in 1978.
Rodriguez’s early success in Tucson makes the recent implosion all the more perplexing. Arizona followed up the 2014 season with a 7-6 mark in 2015 before falling to 3-9 last season; injuries played a role, particularly last season, but it’s rare to see programs fall off so quickly. In 2015, the defense tanked and DC Jeff Casteel was replaced; in 2016, the offense fell apart as well (partially because they had to play four different quarterbacks) and the defense didn’t recover. Arizona’s taken a hit in recruiting, key players have transferred, and there have been significant staff changes – all indicating that things will not be getting better. Since the athletic director who hired him has since moved on, Rodriguez’s job security seems very tenuous.
The offense should be much better than it was last season. Brandon Dawkins is more of a dual-threat than former starter (and current Baylor Bear) Anu Solomon – he ran for more touchdowns than he passed for in 2016. The entire offense was afflicted by injuries last season; both the RB corps and the OL should improve if the injury luck regresses and Arizona’s best players can stay on the field. Whether it’s enough to compensate for a defense that’s almost assuredly going to be terrible again is the big question: the entire secondary returns, but the Wildcats were awful against the pass last season; the two-deep in the front six (Arizona runs a 3-3-5) is in flux.
Programs don’t pull out of nosedives like this often. 2017 will feature some regression to the mean, but Rodriguez is now entering his sixth season at Arizona and if they don’t make a bowl game again, which seems likely, they may be making a coaching change after this season.
[49-54 after the JUMP]