We live in a "what have you done for me lately?" sports culture, so while some college football teams are still basking in their 2013 success, it's already time to start thinking about what comes next.
It's one thing for a middle-of-the-road program to put together one great team that capitalizes on a favorable schedule to win 10 or 11 games and unexpectedly get to a major bowl game. It's another to turn that one-year success into a multi-year run of contending. Back in 2007, for instance, teams like Boston College and Kansas put together memorable runs, only to prove that success can be fleeting. Meanwhile, Steve Spurrier has launched South Carolina from obscurity to success, with no major bowls yet but three straight 11-2 seasons at a historically underperforming school that went 1-21 in 1998-99.
Last season, several teams achieved significantly higher runs of success than normal, with Michigan State, UCF and Baylor reaching their first BCS bowl bids, Missouri contending for the national championship and Duke and Vanderbilt making noise with wins over superior programs. But 2013 was one thing. Can they repeat that success in 2014?
Little Brother has become Big Brother.
Go back to early September, and it would have been hard to foresee the Spartans holding such a decisive edge over the in-state rival Wolverines in 2013. But after a few weeks, Michigan developed into perhaps the most erratic team in the country, with Devin Gardner struggling to overcome frequent mistakes, Brady Hoke and Al Borges struggling to overcome stubbornly conservative coaching and the offensive line unable to create a push up the middle. Michigan State went in the opposite direction: Once Mark Dantonio settled on Connor Cook as the starting quarterback and Jeremy Langford emerged as a consistent threat at running back, the Spartans began to click on offense enough to support their dominant defense. While they ranked 109th in the nation in yards per play in nonconference play, they were a mediocre but acceptable 52nd against Big Ten foes. After losing to Notre Dame, Michigan State won 10 in a row, the first nine by double digits, beating undefeated Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Pac-12 champion Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, after beating Notre Dame, Michigan nearly lost to hapless Akron and UConn and then lost six of its final eight games. In the middle of it all, Michigan State smoked Michigan 29-6 in East Lansing, the Spartans' fifth win in six tries against the Wolverines after losing six in a row, and after not winning consecutive games in the series since a three-game streak in 1965-67.
So now what? Michigan State won its first Rose Bowl since the 1987 season and finished No. 3 in the polls, its highest finish since 1966. It snagged its first BCS bowl bid in its final chance in 16 BCS seasons. The Spartans magically held on to coveted defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, but now Dantonio and Narduzzi -- perhaps the best combination of defensive minds in college football -- have to somehow sustain success with greatly elevated expectations and half the defense headed to the NFL. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun returns as a cornerstone of the unit and an All-America candidate, but otherwise the most important players are all gone: linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and shutdown corner Darqueze Dennard, plus safety Isaiah Lewis and both starting tackles.
Recruiting juggernauts like Alabama, LSU and Florida State can snap their fingers and reload; maintaining a high level of play at Michigan State is a different story. The Spartans' 2014 recruiting class ranked 26th, according to Rivals.com, their highest ranking since finishing 17th in 2009. Holding that rare upper hand on Michigan is vital, because aside from Texas, Florida, California and Alabama, it's difficult for two major programs in one state to sustain top-tier success at the same time. Now, of course, is the time to capitalize, with the Spartans fresh off that Rose Bowl win and the Wolverines on their heels, getting worse in each of Brady Hoke's three seasons as he moves closer and closer to the hot seat.
In 2014 we may find out a lot about the Spartans in a hurry, as after opening with a gimme game against Jacksonville State, they travel to Autzen Stadium for a showdown with a likely top-five Oregon. Fortunately, the Big Ten road schedule is light, with three of the conference's easiest trips (Purdue, Indiana, Maryland) plus NCAA-thinned Penn State. Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska all come to East Lansing, and Wisconsin isn't on the slate. The Spartans are unlikely to be better than they were last year, with the offense improving and the defense taking a step back from its remarkable success. This is probably not a playoff team -- which it would have been last year -- but that doesn't mean the Spartans can't wedge themselves into one of the major bowls again. The Big Ten is hardly filled with powerhouses, and Michigan State is as good a bet as any to overtake Ohio State again. Strong coaching can go a long way, and mostly Michigan State's outlook hinges on the growth of Cook behind center.
2013 record: 13-1
Early projected 2014 record: 10-2
It's amazing to think that Gary Pinkel was perceived as being on the hot seat last offseason, with the Tigers fumbling their SEC debut with a 5-7 record as fellow Big 12 transplant Texas A&M thrived and produced a Heisman winner. The tide turned in a hurry, of course, and it's hard to find many faults with a coach who has now guided Missouri to two top-five finishes in seven years, creating the school's best run of success, by far, since Dan Devine in the 1960s.
Quarterback Maty Mauk already got his feet wet in an extended run as starter in place of the injured James Franklin, and while he loses several key pieces of the supporting cast, the Tigers were deep on offense last year and can maintain much of that success even with some noteworthy attrition: Former blue-chip recruit Dorial Green-Beckham is on the verge of stardom at receiver -- assuming he's in the clear off the field -- while Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy are proven commodities as speedy running backs. Ultimately, the offense will be fine, assuming Mauk continues his upward trajectory.
The problem is replacing the production from three defensive stars: One of the nation's top cornerbacks in E.J. Gaines, and star pass rushers Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, who gave Mizzou the SEC's best defensive line, at least until the SEC title game against Auburn. The Tigers didn't give up more than 184 rushing yards in 13 of 14 games, the lone exception being Auburn's absurd 545-yard effort; led by Gaines' coverage ability and the SEC's best pass rush, Mizzou ranked third in the SEC in yards per pass attempt allowed. Fortunately, they were also deep up front last year, with Shane Ray and Markus Golden both proven pass rushers, which makes the loss of Gaines the most problematic.
Their 2014 schedule is manageable, with the only nonconference road game at Toledo -- although the home/road split in SEC play is brutal, with trips to South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee and home dates with Georgia, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Arkansas. Last year was sort of the perfect storm, as a veteran Mizzou team got breakout performances from key players like Sam and took advantage of a weakened SEC East, a situation that is unlikely to repeat itself in 2014. Georgia and Florida will almost certainly be healthier, South Carolina isn't going anywhere and Tennessee is on the rise under Butch Jones. It doesn't take much to go from SEC East champs, one step away from the national title game, to fifth in the division and the Music City Bowl. Even after winning the East and the Cotton Bowl, Missouri's 34th-ranked recruiting class on Rivals was good enough for only 12th in the SEC.
Pinkel has made a habit of cobbling together highly competitive teams from lesser recruiting classes, but it's not necessarily the type of thing that allows for championship contending in the SEC every year. Missouri can continue to be a threat to anyone in the league, but a combination of natural regression and improvement in the rest of the division will prove that 2013-level production shouldn't be expected as the norm.
2013 record: 12-2
Early projected 2014 record: 8-4
It's still somewhat hard to know what to make of Baylor. Last year's schedule was so ridiculously unbalanced that the Bears spent the first half of the season aiming for 50 points by halftime every week, and the last half fighting through injury issues as the schedule toughened, edging a mediocre TCU team by three, getting blown out at Oklahoma State and surprisingly losing to UCF by 10 in the Fiesta Bowl. Baylor is unquestionably miles ahead of where it was when coach Art Briles took over, a worthy Big 12 championship team that can score faster than anyone, but it's hardly a deep top-tier juggernaut that can coast along without hiccups.
Still, when everyone is healthy and everything is clicking, no offense is more difficult to defend, with Briles perfecting the art of creating and utilizing as much space as possible. Injuries hurt last year, but the silver lining is that they allowed others to get necessary reps, particularly in the backfield. For as much as Baylor is a downfield passing team, the Bears also boast one of the nation's best running games out of the spread, and with the now-departed Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin banged up, Shock Linwood (6.9 yards per carry) and Devin Chafin both flashed their potential as the team's go-to backs. They join quarterback Bryce Petty, a sure bet to be among the preseason Heisman favorites, along with the suddenly endless supply of receiver talent that is making Baylor into Wide Receiver U. Baylor knows what it has in senior Antwan Goodley on the outside and Levi Norwood in the slot, while it waits to see if any number of high-profile recruits from the last few classes -- Robbie Rhodes, Corey Coleman, KD Cannon, Davion Hall -- emerge as the necessary deep threats that 1) can make big plays; 2) open up the running game.
Not only is Baylor's system conducive to scoring a lot of points, but the quality of players all-around continues to rise. Sure, replacing guys like receiver Tevin Reese and, perhaps most importantly, guard Cyril Richardson is difficult, especially at a place without a history of attracting top talent, but the offense will be fine; the defense merely needs to be passable again, and it returns two of its best players in middle linebacker Bryce Hager and mammoth defensive end Shawn Oakman.
Once again, Baylor's nonconference schedule is laughable, with home games against SMU and Northwestern State to open a new stadium, and a weird return trip to Buffalo after eviscerating the Bulls at home last year. With nine Big 12 games, the 2014 schedule is still evenly split, with four home (TCU, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Kansas State), four road (Iowa State, Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma) and one neutral (Texas Tech in Arlington). With Briles electing to stay put and continue building Baylor, as it moves into a new stadium, there's little reason to think the Bears are going away anytime soon. They can continue to contend for Big 12 championships, even if Charlie Strong gets Texas back on track.
2013 record: 11-2
Early projected 2014 record: 10-2
Winning is one thing; making anyone care is another. The BCS era closed with UCF getting its first bid, winning the American Athletic Conference in its first season with a comeback at Louisville and pulling off an upset over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, losing only to South Carolina. But that one year of special opportunity is passed, and now the American is relegated to lesser status as one of the Group of Five conferences. UCF still has access to the major bowls, if it ranks as the best team from those conferences ahead of usual suspects like Boise State and Northern Illinois, but suddenly the old Big East is nothing more than a rebranded Conference USA (nine of its 2014 members are former CUSA teams, including UCF and newest additions East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa).
Knights quarterback Blake Bortles wisely capitalized on a successful season and bolted for the NFL, along with running back Storm Johnson, leaving two huge holes for UCF. Still, the competition is undeniably weaker, with Louisville and Rutgers now gone, meaning UCF has to worry mostly about Cincinnati, Houston and league newcomer East Carolina, at least in the immediate future. The Knights do give themselves ample nonconference opportunities to prove that they belong, though, as they open the season against Penn State in Ireland, travel to Missouri on Sept. 13 and host BYU on Oct. 11. The problem is that those three nonconference games may be the toughest three games of their season.
UCF can certainly sustain success, even without Bortles and Johnson, as the defense returns nine starters and there has always been plenty of high-school talent in its backyard to build upon, but it's going to take an undefeated season full of blowouts to have a chance at sniffing the College Football Playoff.
2013 record: 12-1
Early projected 2014 record: 10-2
David Cutcliffe proved that 2012 didn't have to be an anomaly. After finishing the regular season .500 to get to their first bowl since 1994, the Blue Devils instead built upon that relative success to go 10-2 in the regular season -- the first 10-win season in school history -- before losing to Florida State in the ACC title game and then giving Texas A&M a thrilling run in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Duke took advantage of a weak ACC Coastal, finishing ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1961, the days of a coached named Bill Murray. It's not that the Blue Devils were particularly dominant in any way, ranking 48th in yards per play and 77th in yards per play allowed, but they were outstanding in the return game and made big plays at opportune times.
Duke lost offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to Florida, but this is Cutcliffe's show, and even if there's a talent gap, the Blue Devils can be confident knowing they will be prepared and well-coached. With quarterback Anthony Boone and receiver Jamison Crowder among eight starters returning on offense, Duke is poised to keep that bowl run going. That doesn't mean an ACC championship or even another 10-win season, but simply competing for bowl bids every year is a remarkable turn of events for Duke football.
2013 record: 10-4
Early projected 2014 record: 7-5
Vandy wasn't exactly a breakout team of 2013, given that its season essentially duplicated 2012, with a 9-4 record capped by a bowl win. But the Commodores are certainly at a crossroads, with program builder James Franklin bolting for Penn State and taking a chunk of Vandy's 2014 recruiting class with him. Former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason was a wise choice as Franklin's replacement, and now he's tasked with keeping the program moving forward after losing an energetic leader who led the team to back-to-back top-25 finishes, its first and only since 1948. In one way Vandy was a breakout team in the SEC East, given that it beat Georgia, Florida and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever. Georgia and Florida may have been hurt and Tennessee has been down, but in the past Vandy was the team that even the bad SEC teams beat. Simply being able to take advantage of downturns elsewhere in the SEC East is enormous progress.
The problem is that the East should be getting better, with a healthier Georgia and Tennessee appearing to be heading in the right direction and Florida still a wild card. Vandy was much like Duke in that it didn't do anything particularly great, ranking 80th in yards per play and a solid 25th in yards per play allowed. While plenty of offensive experience returns, the two best players, tackle Wesley Johnson and receiver Jordan Matthews, are gone, and the defense loses almost everyone, meaning Mason has a lot of work to do to keep Vandy afloat in a brutal conference. The good news is that the nonconference schedule is laughable (Temple, UMass, Charleston Southern, Old Dominion), and the cross-division games are Ole Miss and Mississippi State, so bowl eligibility for the fourth straight year is at least in reach in Mason's first year as a head coach.
2013 record: 9-4
Early projected 2014 record: 6-6
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