College Football

10 College Football Teams Set for Huge Turnarounds in 2014

Greg WallaceFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2014

10 College Football Teams Set for Huge Turnarounds in 2014

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    Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern Wildcats should be among college football's most improved teams this fall.
    Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern Wildcats should be among college football's most improved teams this fall.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Spring is a time for renewal, for new hope.

    This month, college football teams across America are strapping on the pads and helmets and heading out to the practice fields, hoping that new schemes, blocking and tackling can either build on the successes of last fall or erase the failures.

    This is the time of year when new coaches and new ideas are embraced, with the hope that they’ll pay off with wins when the leaves turn and stadiums fill with rabid fans.

    Last fall, a number of prominent teams suffered through down, disappointing seasons, and they’re looking to rebound and prove that they were only flukes. Here are 10 teams that should be able to shake off 2013’s doldrums for success in 2014.

Boise State

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    Bryan Harsin is a natural fit for Boise State.
    Bryan Harsin is a natural fit for Boise State.Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    2013 marked the first time in eight seasons that Boise State failed to reach the 10-win plateau. The Broncos fell to 8-5, finishing the season with a two-touchdown loss to Oregon State in the Hawaii Bowl, after starting senior quarterback Joe Southwick was sent home for allegedly urinating off a hotel balcony.

    Head coach Chris Petersen (92-12 at Boise State) bolted for Washington, and Boise responded by hiring former Broncos quarterback and offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin as his replacement.

    Harsin was the architect of some of Boise’s best offenses. In his last four seasons, Boise finished no lower than 18th nationally in total offense. He plans to run an uptempo system that operates in a way that stretches opposing defenses, per a spring press conference

    Quarterback Grant Hedrick, who accounted for 22 touchdowns last season in place of the injured Southwick, is the likely starter, though junior college transfer Tommy Stuart will give him a challenge.

    Boise returns 15 starters, led by talented receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes (77 receptions, 702 yards, six TDs in 2013), and the Broncos’ schedule is favorable. They open in the Georgia Dome against Ole Miss, but welcome BYU and Mountain West foes Colorado State, Fresno State and Utah State to Boise, which will give them an edge.

    It wouldn’t be surprising, given the returning talent and fresh ideas, to see another 10-win season in 2014.

Florida

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    If Jeff Driskel is healthy this fall, Florida should be significantly improved.
    If Jeff Driskel is healthy this fall, Florida should be significantly improved.John Raoux/Associated Press

    In a word, Florida’s 2013 was nightmarish. The Gators followed an 11-win season and a Sugar Bowl appearance with an injury-filled 4-8 campaign. The nadir was a home loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, which saw the Eagles march into The Swamp and win without completing so much as a single pass.

    The Gators lost 15 players to season-ending injuries, including 10 starters. The most important was junior quarterback Jeff Driskel, who broke a bone in his right leg in the third game, ending his season. 

    Driskel’s backups were highly ineffective, and the loss of starting tailback Matt Jones to a season-ending knee injury didn’t help, either. Florida wound up 113th nationally in total offense (316.7 YPG), 114th nationally in scoring offense (18.8 PPG) and 107th in passing offense (170.9 YPG).

    Coach Will Muschamp sacked offensive coordinator Brent Pease and hired Kurt Roper from Duke. Per Scott Carter of Gatorzone.com, Muschamp said, "He has a diverse, up-tempo background on offense and does a good job of adapting to what the players do best." 

    Driskel will lead the way in his redshirt junior season.

    Florida will lose a trio of defensive stalwarts early to the NFL draft in linebacker Ronald Powell and cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, but if Driskel and Jones are healthy, the offense should be significantly improved.

    The Gators face road tests at Alabama and Tennessee and also draw LSU from the SEC West (the Tigers will visit The Swamp). However, Florida will welcome SEC East rivals South Carolina and Missouri to Gainesville and will have its typical neutral-site game against Georgia in Jacksonville.

    If Roper’s teachings take hold, expect a spike upward this fall.

LSU

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    Coach Les Miles has a talented team, as usual, in Baton Rouge.
    Coach Les Miles has a talented team, as usual, in Baton Rouge.Bill Haber/Associated Press

    For some programs, a 10-3 season capped by an Outback Bowl win is not a disappointment.

    LSU is not one of those programs. The Tigers have established themselves as one of the nation’s premier programs, with a 117-28 record and a pair of BCS national titles (plus another national title game appearance) in the past 11 years.

    Les Miles’ bunch doesn’t so much rebuild as reload, with 11 representatives at the recent NFL Scouting Combine.

    Junior receivers Odell Beckham (59 receptions, 1,152 yards, eight TDs) and Jarvis Landry (77 receptions, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs) declared early for the NFL draft, but LSU signed 5-star wideout Malachi Dupre and 4-star Trey Quinn, as well as talented prospects D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.

    The Tigers’ leading returning receiver, Travin Dural, had only seven receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns, but there is no fear of a talent shortage.

    Starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger must be replaced. Sophomore Anthony Jennings, who led a comeback win over Arkansas and the Outback Bowl win over Iowa, has the upper hand. However, Jennings completed only seven of 19 passes for 82 yards and an interception against the Hawkeyes, and he’ll receive a spring challenge from highly touted early enrollee Brandon Harris.

    Bruising tailback Jeremy Hill left early for the NFL, but LSU signed 5-star prospect Leonard Fournette, the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, per 247Sports.

    Defensively, the Tigers must replace departed defensive line stalwarts Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, as well as standout safety Craig Loston. But the infusion of talent should allow LSU to compete in the loaded SEC West.

    And after two years out of the BCS spotlight, the Tigers will be hungry to get back this fall.

Michigan

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    Brady Hoke faces a key season in Ann Arbor in 2014.
    Brady Hoke faces a key season in Ann Arbor in 2014.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The Wolverines hoped to take a step forward from 2012’s 8-5 record last season. What they got was a step back. Consistent struggles with the offensive line and running game led to a 7-6 season that finished with a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State.

    Devin Gardner, an athletic dual-threat QB, often had nowhere to run. The low point was a 29-6 loss to Michigan State which saw Michigan put up negative-48 yards rushing. Michigan averaged only 125.7 yards rushing per game, finishing 102nd nationally.

    That was a big reason why coach Brady Hoke fired offensive coordinator Al Borges, replacing him with Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.

    Nussmeier favors a pro-style offense that will be predicated on a strong running game and play-action passes, giving a solid foundation from which to throw multiple looks at opposing defenses. The Wolverines were too complicated under Borges, a jack of all trades and master of none.

    A young offensive line must find its footing quickly, but Michigan is in a position to improve. If Nussmeier’s teachings take hold, expect Michigan to rise in the league standings.

Notre Dame

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    With Everett Golson back in the fold, Notre Dame should be much better this fall.
    With Everett Golson back in the fold, Notre Dame should be much better this fall.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Following a trip to the BCS National Championship Game in 2012, big things were expected of Notre Dame in 2013. But sophomore quarterback Everett Golson’s suspension from the university for academic misconduct derailed the Fighting Irish’s season before it began.

    Tommy Rees actually performed admirably, throwing 27 touchdowns against 13 interceptions with 3,257 passing yards. But the offense missed Golson’s dual-threat ability. In 2012, Golson rushed for 298 yards. Rees? Minus-56.

    Without Golson, Notre Dame slipped from 12-1 to 9-4. His presence will bolster a solid running game led by rising senior Cam McDaniel (705 yards, 3 TDs in 2013) and rising sophomore Tarean Folston (470 yards, 3 TDs).

    Star wideout DaVaris Daniels is not currently on campus while serving a suspension for an academic infraction, but he is expected back by this fall. A replacement for graduated senior T.J. Jones (1,108 yards, 9 TDs in 2013) must be found, but Golson’s presence will help immensely.

    On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame welcomes new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. He'll bring his well-traveled, aggressive defensive style to a unit looking to replace potential NFL first-round picks in end Stephon Tuitt and nose guard Louis Nix, as well as graduated senior linebackers Prince Shembo, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.

    The offense will need to be improved over last year to offset the defense’s adjustment to VanGorder’s expected 4-3 system, but Golson’s return should help the Irish improve from 2013.

North Carolina

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    Larry Fedora's North Carolina team finished 2013 very strongly.
    Larry Fedora's North Carolina team finished 2013 very strongly.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Coming off an 8-4 2012 season with a returning starting quarterback in Bryn Renner, big things were expected of the Tar Heels last fall. However, coach Larry Fedora’s group got off to an awful start due to defensive struggles, beginning the season 1-5 and on the brink of postseason ineligibility.

    Over the last half of the season, Carolina rallied, finishing the year 5-1 to earn a bowl berth, with the only loss a 27-25 defeat to rival and eventual Coastal Division champion Duke.

    The Heels punctuated the year with a 39-17 Belk Bowl rout of Cincinnati, giving themselves major momentum heading into the offseason.

    Rising junior quarterback Marquise Williams was impressive, throwing for 1,698 yards and 15 touchdowns, adding 536 rushing yards and six scores on the ground. However, Williams will face a potential spring challenge from backups Mitch Trubisky and Kanler Coker, per The (Raleigh) News and Observer's Andrew Carter. 

    North Carolina lost All-ACC left tackle James Hurst (graduation) and center Russell Bodine (NFL draft), and its offensive line could be youth-filled again. If the line takes shape and the much-maligned defense continues its improvement, the Heels could make a run for the Coastal title.

Northwestern

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    Without a healthy Venric Mark, Northwestern struggled last fall.
    Without a healthy Venric Mark, Northwestern struggled last fall.Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Northwestern was college football’s poster boy for bad luck last fall. The Wildcats were 5-7, but that mark doesn’t accurately tell the story of their season.

    During a four-game stretch from mid-October to mid-November, Pat Fitzgerald’s team lost by three points versus Minnesota, lost in overtime at Iowa, lost in triple-overtime to Michigan after the Wolverines kicked a game-tying field goal on the final play of regulation, and lost 27-24 at Nebraska when the Cornhuskers pulled off a final-play Hail Mary.

    In a vacuum, the Wildcats’ fall from 10-3 to 5-7, snapping a five-year bowl streak, looks bad. In reality, the Cats were one break away from a bowl game.

    Last fall, versatile senior quarterback Kain Colter and talented tailback Venric Mark were sidelined by injuries, leading a laundry list of walking wounded. Mark, who rushed for 1,366 yards in 2012, received a medical redshirt and will return this fall for his senior season. Plus, rising senior Trevor Siemian gained valuable experience filling in for Colter last fall.

    Colter and wideout Rashad Lawrence are the main offensive losses, while middle linebacker Damien Proby and defensive end Tyler Scott are the only major defensive ones.

    Northwestern has Northern Illinois and Notre Dame on its nonconference slate, and it draws Michigan and Penn State from the new Big Ten East. However, Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin all come to Evanston, with Ohio State and Michigan State falling off the schedule.

    It’d be a surprise if the Wildcats didn’t make noise this fall.

TCU

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    With a new offensive mindset, Gary Patterson and TCU figure to be improved this fall.
    With a new offensive mindset, Gary Patterson and TCU figure to be improved this fall.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Entering 2013, the Horned Frogs were one of the nation’s most consistent teams, having compiled a 100-27 record in their last 10 seasons with eight 11-win seasons (topped by 2010’s 13-0 campaign).

    2012 was a major step back: The Horned Frogs averaged just 25.1 points per game (89th nationally) and slipped to a 4-8 record, the program’s first losing mark since 2004.

    Outgoing quarterback Casey Pachall (who missed five games in 2013 with a broken arm and nine in 2012 due to substance-abuse treatment) threw a punch on his way out of the program, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the program had "zero leadership."

    Coach Gary Patterson hired a pair of new offensive minds in Houston offensive coordinator Doug Meacham and Texas Tech quarterbacks coach Sonny Cumbie. Both are well-versed in the wide-open Air Raid passing offense and will serve as co-offensive coordinators.

    The Horned Frogs need to find a quarterback: Trevone Boykin (who served as Pachall’s replacement last fall), Tyler Matthews and Zach Allen will compete this spring. Boykin is also a talented receiver, and if Allen or Matthews prove they can carry the load under center, it could free up Boykin to move outside as an offensive weapon.

    The new offensive blood could help TCU rebound. This is too talented and too consistent a program to slip below .500 for two consecutive years, even in the loaded Big 12.

Texas

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    Charlie Strong should give Texas some much-needed toughness.
    Charlie Strong should give Texas some much-needed toughness.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Sometimes, it’s just time to move on.

    Despite a 16-year run that featured a BCS national title and national runner-up finish, Mack Brown’s message had grown stale in Austin. Following that national title game appearance in 2009, the Longhorns won five, eight, nine and eight games, respectively, in the next four seasons, and Brown resigned under pressure last December.

    His replacement? Louisville coach Charlie Strong, who made a career out of doing more with less. In his final two seasons at Louisville, Strong took less-talented teams to a 23-3 record, a pair of 11-win seasons and a Sugar Bowl berth.

    Strong inherits a solid offensive talent pool in quarterback David Ash (who redshirted following concussion issues in 2013) and tailbacks Johnathan Gray, Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown.

    Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, winner of the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end, graduated. So did wideout Mike Davis, who finished his career fourth on Texas’ all-time receptions list, fourth in receiving yards and fifth in touchdowns. But the rest of a solid defense returns, and you can’t discount the value of new ideas.

    Strong is known for a tough-love coaching style, which is badly needed in Austin. Will it make a difference? I think so, and the results should show on the field.

    The schedule isn’t easy: Texas will host BYU, UCLA and Baylor and travel to Oklahoma State and Texas Tech while playing the annual neutral-site rivalry game with Oklahoma at Dallas’ Cotton Bowl.

    But with a little luck and a new attitude, the Longhorns could crack double-digit wins again in 2014.

Tennessee

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    Butch Jones is building something special at Tennessee.
    Butch Jones is building something special at Tennessee.Garry Jones/Associated Press

    Once a national power, the Volunteers have fallen on hard times. Tennessee has suffered through six losing seasons in the last seven years, including 2013’s 5-7 mark. However, the Vols were very close to a bowl breakthrough a year ago.

    Take away a 34-31 overtime loss to Georgia or a 14-10 loss to Vanderbilt, and Butch Jones’ team would’ve been postseason eligible.

    The Vols will have a quarterback battle this spring between rising senior Justin Worley (1,239 yards, 10 TDs in 2013) and rising sophomore Joshua Dobbs (695 yards, 2 TDs last fall), but Jones has recruited well, signing the nation's No. 7 class, per 247Sports

    There is plenty of young talent on campus. If it emerges, there’s no reason Tennessee can’t go bowling this fall.

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