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)
#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]
#5 ACC Atlantic, #11 ACC
7-6 (3-5) in 2016
After the 2013 season, Jim Grobe retired: he won the ACC Championship and made the Orange Bowl in 2006, a rare feat at one of the conference’s most disadvantaged schools in terms of football – Grobe was perhaps the best coach in program history, but they still were mediocre for his last half-decade in Winston-Salem, posting a losing record in each season. It wasn’t any easier for former Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson, a slow builder who created a potent MAC offense, but was stepping into a rough roster situation at Wake Forest.
The Demon Deacons went 3-9 in each of Clawson’s first two seasons and the fabled “Clawffense” was nowhere to be seen, as WF scored just 14.8 points per game in 2014 and 17.4 in 2015. Their two conference wins those two seasons were 6-3 over Virginia Tech in 2OT and 3-0 over Boston College. The program had a breakthrough of sorts in 2016 – Wake went 7-6 (though still had a penchant for hideous wins, like the 7-3 opener over Tulane) and upset Temple in the bowl game. The Demon Deacons averaged just 20.4 points per game.
Clawson will again juggle between two quarterbacks – John Wolford (who has more experience), and Kendall Hinton (who has more potential) – and their ability to break some runs is the extent of Wake Forests’ offensive attack. The offensive line has been terrible since Clawson arrived, as he’s slowly built with young players in almost every position group. Nine total starters return on offense, Hinton flashed potential in the little he played before injury, every runner and pass-catcher is back – but there’s still a long way to go to get back to average.
On the other hand, the defense has been great – even though their defensive coordinator left for Notre Dame, Wake should still be strong on that side of the ball. There’s been attrition at every level of defense, but there are returning contributors at every level as well and Clawson has some young talent that should develop into an even better unit in the future. Wake is kind of like Boston College: stout defensively, impotent offensively, and stuck in the brutal ACC Atlantic with tough competition at the top.
#6 ACC Coastal, #10 ACC
4-8 (1-7) in 2016
David Cutcliffe’s now entering his tenth season at Duke, and even though he’s had a losing record in Durham (52-61), he’s taken Duke to new heights as a program: from 2012 to 2015, they went to four straight bowl games, they won ten games and the Coastal Division in 2013 (before getting destroyed by eventual national champion Florida State in the conference title game), and went 27-13 over a three-year span – far better than Duke’s historical standard as a program.
2016 represented a step back from that solid three-year run for the Blue Devils. Returning starting QB Thomas Sirk tore his Achilles tendon in fall camp and the job went to a freshman, Daniel Jones. Early-season losses to Wake Forest and Virginia signaled that Duke wouldn’t be making a bowl game, and even though they managed victories against Notre Dame and North Carolina as substantial underdogs, they finished 4-8, the program’s worst record since 2011.
Duke’s offense dropped off considerably in 2016 – understandable, given the circumstances. Sirk transferred with Jones locked in as the starter; marshaling Cutcliffe’s pass-heavy offense was a tall task for the freshman, though he got better as the season progressed. Jones was a nice complement to Shaun Wilson in the running game, but Duke still checked in at just under four yards per carry and weren’t explosive enough on the ground or through the air in 2016. Improvement on the offensive line is a necessity, and the Blue Devils will have to find a playmaker capable of creating big plays to add a crucial element to Cutcliffe’s methodical offense.
The defense was great early in the season (aside from the Notre Dame game) and cratered at the end, giving up 56 points to Pitt and 40 to Miami in their last two games. Injuries in the back seven decimated the pass defense, and even though the Blue Devils did well to hold up decently enough against the run, they gave up the most points per game of any Duke defense since 2012. They do have a solid LB corps headlined by Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys.
Another difficult schedule will make bowl contention tough – though Duke’s high APR could get them a bowl bid at 5-7. The Coastal has improved over the last few years and it looks as if Duke may be getting left behind.
#9 Big 12
3-9 (2-7) in 2016
Most of the former Big 8 schools that remain in the Big 12 are very hard places to win, and Iowa State is no exception: in the last decade, they’ve had just one winning season (Paul Rhoads’s first, a 7-6 mark in 2009) and for the last four seasons, they haven’t had more than three wins. Matt Campbell was a solid hire after Rhoads was fired following the 2015 season – he’s quite young and recruits well, and was in charge of one of the best programs in the MAC at Toledo once he took over for Tim Beckman. It was quite obvious that he’d need some time before having a chance at success in Ames, and year two of the building project could potentially provide an exciting offense.
In 2016, Iowa State opened Campbell’s tenure with a loss to FCS Northern Iowa and a 42-3 home loss to Iowa, but two late-season wins – including a 66-10 rout of Texas Tech – provided some hope moving forward. Former Georgia transfer Jake Park eventually wrested the starting QB job from Joel Lanning (who was more of a runner than Park and who’s since moved to LB) and the Cyclones’ offense was better with Park in charge. ISU wasn’t close to a bowl game, but there were some positive signs.
The offensive line has some questions – though the return of LT Jake Campos from injury should provide a boost – though ISU is relatively stacked at the skill positions between Park, some promising running backs, and WR Allen Lazard – who had 1,018 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns last season. The defense was terrible against the run a year ago and will rely heavily on JUCO transfers on the defensive line – the Cyclone defense didn’t give up too many big plays, but offenses were able to march the ball down the field against them on a consistent basis.
Campbell is a good coach, and it will be interesting to see whether he’s able to do with the collection of talent he has at his disposal on offense. If the line gels and the defense gets a little better against the run, ISU could grab some wins against their more mediocre Big 12 opponents and challenge for a bowl bid.
#8 Big 12
5-7 (3-6) in 2016
Texas Tech briefly went away from its signature Air Raid after firing Mike Leach – three bland years with Tommy Tuberville elapsed before the Red Raiders went back to their roots by hiring former Leach QB Kliff Kingsbury. He’d never been a head coach (and he’s still a few years away from turning 40), but tutored Heisman-winning QB Johnny Manziel in his one season at Texas A&M after spending a half-decade with Kevin Sumlin. It was a hire that was praised at the time, but Kingsbury’s seat is beginning to get warmer as he enters his fifth season as the head coach in Lubbock.
Kingsbury has escalated Tech’s identity to absurd levels – and it hasn’t led to wins: he started his tenure 7-0 to open the 2013 season… and has gone 17-26 since. His program is the embodiment of every Big 12 stereotype; sure, first-round draft pick Patrick Mahomes threw for 5,052 yards and 41 touchdowns despite some mid-season injuries – which are insane, video game numbers – but it didn’t even matter because of the defense. They went 5-7 despite having one of the better offenses in all of college football.
As amazing as the offenses have been under Kingsbury, the defensive stats are somehow even more ridiculous. In 2016, Texas Tech gave up at least 600 yards in more than half their games, lost five games in which they scored at least 35 points, and they gave up 43.5 points per game – which marked a slight improvement from 2015. Last season, they gave up an NCAA record-tying eight touchdowns to one player (Arizona State RB Kalen Ballage) and lost 68-55; dropped a 66-59 shootout against Oklahoma in which both teams gained 854 total yards; they were blown out 66-10 by Iowa State.
There might not be a more team with a more extreme and entrenched gap between offense and defense in the Power Five (maybe Boston College or Wake Forest, but in the inverse), so it makes it easy to predict that Texas Tech will have a terrific offense and a horrendous defense. Mahomes is gone but former Iowa transfer Nic Shimonek (who must have had some whiplash going from Ferentz to Kingsbury) will almost definitely rack up some crazy stats. Three receivers who had at least 650 yards and 7 touchdowns return; Kingsbury didn’t care to run the ball last year, but sophomore RB Da’Leon Ward is promising; three of five starting OL return. They should have one of the better offenses in the Big 12 despite losing a great QB.
Texas Tech hasn’t allowed fewer than 500 yards and 40 points per game in any of the last three seasons. The defense will be bad again. Enjoy the show.
#6 SEC East, #13 SEC
4-8 (2-6) in 2016
Missouri’s had an interesting time since joining the SEC: in five seasons, they’ve had three seasons without bowl appearances, and two trips to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game. Those SEC East titles were won under longtime head coach Gary Pinkel (who retired after a cancer diagnosis in 2015), and even though they lost handily to Auburn and then Alabama in those games in 2013 and 2014, outright division championships in two of their first three years in the SEC were impressive.
The Tigers have gone just 9-15 over the last two seasons though – they had a terrible offense (13.6 points per game) and amazing defense (16.2) in 2015, but had the inverse (31.4 points per game and 31.5 points allowed per game) in 2016. Barry Odom, a former Mizzou linebacker, was brought in as the defensive coordinator before the 2015 and made a good unit great, and was promoted to head coach for 2016 – only to see his defense completely implode due to a scheme change and bad injury luck in the front seven.
There’s definitely offensive talent there. QB Drew Lock looked much improved as a sophomore starter last season with 3,399 yards and 23 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions; he should be one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC. RB Damarea Crockett and WR J’Mon Moore reached over 1,000 yards running and receiving, respectively – Crockett was just a freshman last season and averaged a nice 6.9 yards per carry. All five offensive line starters are back, as well as the backup running back and four leading receivers. Josh Heupel improved the offense a ton in his first season at Mizzou as the offensive coordinator and, if they improve again, could have a shot at being the best offense in the SEC East.
Odom eventually decided to abandon the tactical change that defanged his defensive line – allowing the front seven to play with more aggressiveness as the season went on – but nothing helped, as the defensive still gave up nine touchdowns to Tennessee in their second-to-last game. Plenty of junior college transfers were brought in to shore up the front and former blue-chip DT Terry Beckner could be a force if healthy. The secondary has experience and the defense as a whole should be better but still nowhere as good as they were in 2015.
Missouri has a very soft non-conference schedule (Missouri State, Purdue, Idaho, and @ Connecticut) and plays in the SEC East, so with their offensive firepower, they should make a bowl game. Whether they’re a mediocre 6-6 type team or potentially a top-half-of-the-division type team is up to whether the defense more closely resembles Odom’s first unit, rather than his second.
#6 Pac-12 North, #11 Pac-12
4-8 (2-7) in 2016
When Nebraska hired Mike Riley away from his longtime gig at Oregon State following in 2014 season, the Beavers were tasked with replacing probably the best coach in program history. Riley had slid a little bit in the later part of his tenure in Corvallis (5-7, 3-9, 9-4, 7-6, 5-7 in his last five season), and it came as a shock when he left – not only that he would leave, but that Nebraska would want him. Oregon State did well to replace Riley with Gary Andersen, a coach who had made his name building Utah State before a two-year stopover at Wisconsin.
Andersen posted a solid 18-7 record in Madison, but left following a 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game – a seemingly inexplicable move (there were rumors that he didn’t like working under Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, that he was irritated by his budget for assistant salaries, and that he bristled at Wisconsin’s academic standards). Riley left the cupboard bare for Andersen in his first season at Oregon State and OSU went 2-10, losing all nine games against Pac-12 opponents. They improved slightly in 2016, going 4-8 amid a spate of QB injuries and winning three conference games – including the last two, over Arizona and Oregon.
Andersen’s a defense-oriented coach and his 3-4 defense was terrible against the run a year ago; the DL returns most everybody and needs to hold up much, much better against the run. The Beavers do lose their top tackler from a year ago from their LB corps, but depth there could make the unit a plus. OSU was very solid against the pass in 2016 and it could be a strength again, even if they must replace key members of the secondary. The defense should continue improving as Andersen’s tenure progresses.
The offense has struggled to adjust from a pass-heavy offense to Andersen’s preferred spread that features power running scheme. They have a lot of candidates at QB; all three players who started last season return and a JUCO transfer entered the fray in the spring. RB Ryan Nall, when healthy, fit the role of a feature back in Andersen’s offense – he’s a bigger back with surprising speed and ran for 951 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2016.
Andersen built slowly at Utah State and circumstances dictated that he had to do the same at Oregon State. Usually programs can tell if they’ve made a successful hire or not by year three, but the Beavers have a very tough schedule in 2017 – a bowl appearance would be a significant step in the program-building process.