Every year, we make preseason predictions with confidence, thinking we know for sure who's going to be in the mix for championships in late November. Every year, most of those predictions end up being wrong.
While everyone could see a BCS-caliber season coming for Alabama last year, much that actually happened was unexpected: Auburn went from 3-9 to the national title game, Missouri won the SEC East, Duke won the ACC Coastal and Michigan State won the Rose Bowl, among other surprises. Many of the usual suspects will be projected to finish in the top 25 and perhaps contend for the College Football Playoff, but as always, there will be upstarts who make a leap forward and become contenders for better bowl games and maybe even division or conference titles.
So let's gaze into the future and parse 2014's potential risers. Some or all of the following top-50 type teams will get preseason attention as sleepers, but who should we actually be paying attention to?
(Note: Teams are listed in alphabetical order.)
Aside from the phenomenal play of running back Ka'Deem Carey (3,814 yards in two seasons), Rich Rodriguez's first two seasons at Arizona have passed quietly. Perhaps that's a good thing, after all the noise surrounding his disastrous tenure at Michigan. But except for last season's unexpected drubbing of Oregon, Arizona has been anonymous. The Wildcats are a great rushing team -- as expected in Rodriguez's system -- that's been in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12 and gets stuck playing a ton of late-night games that hardly anyone east of Tucson watches. Rodriguez has gone 8-5 in each of his two seasons, both ending in bowl wins. Now the question is whether he can elevate the Wildcats past that mark, because they haven't done better since going 12-1 in 1998. (They parlayed subsequent high expectations into a dud 6-6 campaign the following year.)
Entering 2014, Arizona remains under the radar, topping the bottom tier of a division currently headlined by UCLA, Arizona State and USC. Carey was the only known quantity on the team the last two years, and he's gone. Throw in two one-season starters at quarterback (Matt Scott, B.J. Denker), and the Wildcats are even more unknown on the national level. Rodriguez rarely struggles to put together a productive offense, and the good news among all the departures is that standout Austin Hill, who had 1,364 yards in 2012, returns after missing last year with an ACL tear to lead what could be a dangerous receiving corps, no matter who wins the quarterback job. Rodriguez remains a good fit for a team like Arizona -- which traditionally resides on a level similar to West Virginia -- but the safest bet is that the Wildcats again hover around that eight-win mark, which they've hit in four of the last six years. They can pull off a surprise like the Oregon game last year, but they won't do it consistently yet.
Top 25 finish? No.
If ever Kirk Ferentz is going to get the Hawkeyes back into the top 25, this is the year to do it. It's not because of overwhelming talent, although the Hawkeyes return a solid core led by an experienced offense that went to the Outback Bowl and nearly beat LSU. It's that the schedule presents such a golden opportunity. The Hawkeyes are in the weaker Big Ten division, and instead of drawing a road game at Ohio State or Michigan, their cross-division games are at home vs. Indiana and at Maryland. Throw in a manageable nonconference slate (Northern Iowa, Ball State, Iowa State, at Pitt) and the fact that the toughest division games (Wisconsin, Nebraska) are at home to end the season, and there's little reason Iowa can't win enough games to get to a quality bowl game and even wedge itself into the top 15 at some point during the season.
When your Big Ten road games are Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Illinois, it's inexcusable not to take advantage. This being Iowa, of course, it's entirely possible that bad injury luck and/or a suffocating and boring offense will spring up again, and the defense will have a hard time replacing its entire linebacking corps too. Still, the end of last season -- even with the loss to LSU -- was encouraging enough to think that quarterback Jake Rudock can develop into a productive enough passer to take advantage of a very beatable schedule, especially if some of the young talent at receiver pans out. Don't be surprised if the Big Ten West comes down to Iowa's games against the Badgers and Huskers the final two weeks of November.
Top 25 finish? Yes.
This isn't the leap in quality a team frequently faces when switching conferences, like West Virginia from the Big East to the Big 12 or TCU from the Mountain West to the Big 12. With Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, Maryland is moving to a deeper Big Ten East division than it faced in the ACC Atlantic -- but it's not like it didn't have stiff competition there, given the presence of Florida State and Clemson. Of course, the East is tougher than the West and a bit deeper than the ACC Atlantic, and it also means Maryland now shares a division with two of the teams that pose the biggest threat of raiding the D.C. area for top recruits (Ohio State and Penn State). But whereas fellow newcomer Rutgers is on a downward trend, Maryland has been heading the other way after bottoming out with a 2-10 record in Randy Edsall's first season in 2011.
Mostly, the Terps are healthier, with top receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long -- one of the best combinations in the country -- on track to play after missing most of the second half of 2013, and quarterback C.J. Brown granted a sixth year of eligibility. There's a solid core of skill talent to build around here, and now Edsall has to prove he can take advantage and take another step after getting Maryland back to a bowl game (a loss to Marshall in the Military Bowl). We're not to the point where we can mark any of Maryland's games down as sure wins in the preseason -- especially with three of the first five games on the road -- but that stretch features five winnable matchups, meaning a 5-0 start is plausible heading into the brutal part of its schedule that begins with Ohio State and follows with Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan all in a row before the season ends with Rutgers. Had the Big Ten scheduling gods blessed the Terps with Illinois or Purdue instead of Iowa or Wisconsin, Maryland would be in much better shape.
Alas, while the team should be trending upward, this has all the makings of a fast start that falls off a cliff, like Oregon State last year. In other words, Maryland better take advantage of the early-season opportunities. Even that wasn't enough last year, when a 4-0 start was rendered moot by the rash of injuries and ugly losses to Wake Forest and Syracuse.
Top 25 finish? No.
Yes, it still feels weird to speak of Miami in such terms. But despite rising into the top 10 last season, the Hurricanes have largely been a top-25 outsider in recent years, finishing in the top 25 only once since Larry Coker was sent packing and NCAA rules pressure eventually began. Last year, Miami took advantage of an easy early schedule to start 7-0, then fell apart with losses to Florida State, Virginia Tech and Duke before getting embarrassed by Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl. In 2014, renewed hope comes in the form of Duke Johnson. One of the most explosive players in the nation, Johnson was sorely missed in the last three of those losses after injuring his ankle against Florida State. The offense lives or dies with him, and that'll be especially true this year as uncertainty continues at quarterback, where Stephen Morris is gone and expected starter Ryan Williams, a fifth-year senior, is rehabbing a torn ACL.
Al Golden recruits well, and there is individual talent -- also including linebacker Denzel Perryman -- but the team has been held back by a defense that couldn't get off the field last year, ranking last in the ACC in third-down defense. Fortunately for the Hurricanes, Teddy Bridgewater is no longer at Louisville, but they'll have to rebound from last December's debacle by opening their season at the Cardinals on Labor Day night, down two quarterbacks themselves. A healthy Johnson is one of the most valuable assets in the country, but this has the makings of another Miami team that comes up short. The good news? Stability, finally, after Golden didn't end up at Penn State and the NCAA refrained from dropping the hammer.
Top 25 finish? No.
Mississippi State is on track to be one of the most divisive teams of the offseason. The Bulldogs have a rising star at quarterback in Dak Prescott and the most manageable schedule possible for an SEC West team, making them an intriguing candidate for a sudden rise to nine or so wins. That schedule includes one of the most laughable nonconference slates imaginable, including Southern Miss, UAB, at South Alabama and Tennessee-Martin, and cross-division games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Never should getting to bowl eligibility for Mississippi State be easier.
However, there can be a big difference between, say, 7-5 (top 50 or so) and 9-3 (top 25). The Bulldogs did finish 9-4 with a Gator Bowl win in 2010, and they were in the top 25 at times during the 2011 and 2012 season, but mostly they've reverted back to respectable-but-forgotten form. Between Prescott and defensive tackle Chris Jones, the Bulldogs may have two of the SEC's best players; it's just a matter of finding enough depth to support them. Simply returning a lot of starters isn't enough. Still, if Prescott becomes the star many are beginning to think he can be in Dan Mullen's offense (829 rushing yards last year), an upset or two isn't out of the question. With the rest of the schedule, that could be enough. Either Ole Miss or Mississippi State is likely to finish ranked, and it could very well come down to the Egg Bowl in late November.
Top 25 finish? No.
Last year's heightened expectations went down the drain in a hurry, from the opening loss to South Carolina to the disheartening four-game losing streak against Georgia Tech, East Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami. The Tar Heels started 1-5 with three losses to division rivals, and while they bounced back in the second half, all that accomplished was squeaking out bowl eligibility at 6-6. So now Larry Fedora is left to hit reset and try again, with an intriguing blend of skill-position talent to build around and a defense that needs a wake-up call.
We already got a window into the future in the second half of last season, when an injury to starting quarterback Bryn Renner pushed Marquise Williams into the lineup. Williams averaged a solid 7.8 yards per attempt with 15 touchdowns and six picks, while also rushing for 536 yards and six touchdowns. He has some experience under his belt heading into his junior season, and despite the loss of all-world tight end Eric Ebron, there are potential impact players around him. Receiver Ryan Switzer caught 32 passes as a freshman but made his name known with a staggering five punt returns for touchdowns. And while Williams actually led the team in rushing, a combination of speedy sophomore T.J. Logan, junior Romar Morris and true freshman Elijah Hood could give the Tar Heels a deep and potent running back rotation alongside their dual-threat quarterback.
There's a lot to be excited about entering Fedora's third year; it's just a matter of the Tar Heels navigating the schedule better than they did last year. After a Week 3 bye, they go on the road to East Carolina and Clemson, host Virginia Tech, go to Notre Dame and host Georgia Tech -- a stretch that will almost surely define their season and whether they're ready to take another step. Ten wins in the regular season is likely out of reach, but with the right breaks, perhaps 9-3 isn't.
Top 25 finish? Yes.
Given the recruiting successes of Hugh Freeze, it's surprising that Mississippi State has usurped Ole Miss in the offseason-hype department. Then again, it was the Bulldogs who pulled off an Egg Bowl upset over the Rebels, who put together an OK season but failed to exceed expectations in any way in 2013. Still, Ole Miss has assembled a decent number of talented pieces. Quarterback Bo Wallace is one of the few veterans remaining at the position in the SEC, and sophomore wideout Laquon Treadwell is a budding star. Treadwell is the key offensive standout from the heralded recruiting class of 2013; on defense, it's all about top overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche, who appears on track for a bright future as a versatile lineman. Throw in Nkemdiche's brother, linebacker Denzel (assuming he stays healthy and out of trouble), and safety Cody Prewitt, and the Ole Miss depth chart is peppered with individual talents.
Is that enough? Obviously, the SEC West schedule is brutal, with Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State coming to Oxford and road trips to Texas A&M and LSU. And while the nonconference schedule doesn't seem particularly daunting, both the opener against Boise State in Atlanta and the Week 3 game with a dangerous Louisiana-Lafayette are potential landmines. Ole Miss teams of the past would struggle to come out of this without tripping up; Freeze's Ole Miss is supposed to transcend old habits. The current reality is probably somehwere in between.
Top 25 finish? Yes.
There was always going to be some difficulty transitioning from the Mountain West to the Big 12, but TCU's trajectory has been a bit startling, because it did seem equipped to make a somewhat painless leap. Gary Patterson had the program peaking as it stepped up into the big leagues, with a combined 47-5 record from 2008-11, headlined by a 13-0 Rose Bowl season in 2010. By that time, Patterson had established himself as one of the finest defensive minds in the nation, and he also struck gold on offense with Andy Dalton. As the flagship Dallas-Fort Worth program, there was reason to think he could continue to do so with the draw of the Big 12 now too.
The last two years, however, have been disconcerting, with a 7-6 Big 12 debut followed by last year's 4-8 debacle after starting in the preseason top 25. Nothing's been the same since the off-the-field issues of quarterback Casey Pachall in 2012, and with him gone now, there's again uncertainty at the position. Trevone Boykin -- who started in Pachall's absence but has been inconsistent -- will compete with Texas A&M graduate transfer Matt Joeckel. To help solve the offensive issues, Patterson brought in former Texas Tech quarterback Sonny Cumbie and Houston offense coordinator Doug Meacham as co-coordinators, making it pretty clear that TCU may be spreading the field a bit more.
It's not as if TCU is hopeless. The defense has continued to play well, even with the stiffer competition, ranking 13th in the nation in yards per play allowed, according to cfbstats.com. The loss of star corner Jason Verrett is big, but TCU also gets one of the most important comeback players in college football, as defensive end Devonte Fields -- who was the Big 12 defensive player of the year as a freshman -- is set to return from a foot injury that cost him most of 2013. Teamed with a pair of All-Big 12 caliber players in tackle Chucky Hunter and safety Sam Carter, Fields and the defense are poised to thrive. It's just a matter of the offense closing some of the wide gap between the two units and allowing them to win close games (losses to Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kansas State and Baylor came by a total of 11 points). Do that, and with five Big 12 home games and a manageable nonconference schedule, there is an opportunity for TCU to double its win total or more and get back to respectability.
Top 25 finish? Yes.
It's been ages, it seems, since Tennessee was nationally relevant. After going 10-4 in 2007, the last six seasons have all ended with between five and seven wins, including a 5-7 record four times. Tennessee isn't as easy of a job as its history might say it is, but things should never get this bad. However, after the troublesome hire of Lane Kiffin and the uninspiring hire of Derek Dooley, the program appears to be heading in the right direction under Butch Jones, who signed Rivals.com's No. 5 ranked class in February. Obviously, it's going to take some time for the full impact of that class to be felt -- although running back Jalen Hurd in particular could make an immediate impact -- but Jones is a proven coach who has the ability to get things pointed back in the right direction.
What made last year particularly difficult is that the Volunteers faced one of the nation's toughest schedules, with road games at Oregon, Florida (before injuries completely ravaged the roster), Alabama and Missouri and home games against Georgia, South Carolina and Auburn. The Vols knocked off South Carolina, but there was no real hope of a satsifying season. This year, things are a little better with Auburn gone, but that game is replaced by a tricky road trip to Ole Miss, and the game at Oregon is replaced by a trip to playoff contender Oklahoma. Throw in a Week 1 trap game against Chuckie Keeton and Utah State, and the Vols may be stuck scratching and clawing to avoid yet another season without a bowl, even if talented players like linebacker A.J. Johnson and receiver Marquez North could have them in position to pull off an upset or two. Stopping the musical chairs at quarterback would help.
Top 25 finish? No.
Everyone likes Kliff Kingsbury, and everyone likes the Air Raid offense. It's only natural to think Texas Tech will take a step forward sooner rather than later. But the Red Raiders still need some time to put it all together. While they're already becoming a trendy top-25 pick after an impressive Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State, we can't forget that they turned a 6-0 start into a five-loss season as a backloaded schedule caught up with them.
Quarterback depth is an issue now after the departures of both Baker Mayfield and Michael Brewer, but the good news is that there is a definite starter after so much shuffling last year. Sophomore Davis Webb averaged 7.5 yards per attempt with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions as a freshman, highlighted by his 403-yard, four-touchdown thrashing of the Sun Devils in San Diego. The problem is that he'll have to do it without matchup-nightmare tight end Jace Amaro, who led the Big 12 in catches and yards, as well as 83-catch wideout Eric Ward. This being a Texas Tech offense, there are always receivers at the ready to produce -- led by junior Jakeem Grant -- but Amaro's unique skill set made the offense especially difficult to defend because of his size and versatility. There's still a lot of room to grow around a young quarterback, not to mention the fact that the defense spent the second half of the 2013 season getting throttled before the bowl-game rebound.
Top 25 finish? No.
After three years of mediocre 7-6 football, Steve Sarkisian finally took an experienced Huskies team a bit higher last year, ending with a 9-4 record and a Fight Hunger Bowl win. It was Washington's best season since 2000, although it still felt rather so-so, given the amount of veteran talent. The season was solid, but it also proved that Washington still wasn't ready to penetrate the top tier of the Pac-12, as it went 0-4 against frontrunners Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA.
The cross-division opponents are the same, and the core skill position players are gone, so it might take a leap in logic to believe new coach Chris Petersen can improve the Huskies' record in year one. Still, he has pieces to work with, particularly on defense, where end Hau'oli Kikaha, linebacker Shaq Thompson and cornerback Marcus Peters return to anchor what was already one of the Pac-12's best units last year. On offense, the entire line is back, making the transition a bit easier for new starting quarterback Cyler Miles -- assuming his off-the-field issues are behind him -- and his supporting cast to find their rhythm.
A road trip to Hawaii gives the Huskies a 13th regular-season game, and they should have no problem entering the Sept. 27 home showdown with Stanford at 4-0. Finish what they couldn't last year against the Cardinal, and suddenly things get interesting. While Oregon is a road game, both UCLA and Arizona State come north to Seattle. Petersen was a fantastic hire, and it could pay off right away.
Top 25 finish? Yes.