Let the turnover begin.
With the college football season officially over, and the NFL draft season set to get started, programs from around the country are dealing with an enormous amount of attrition and turnover. Of course, no two programs are hit the same way. Some are bound to take a bigger step back in 2016 based on losses and what they accomplished in '15. Projected strength of schedules play a role as well.
With that in mind, we've compiled 10 teams who feel like the safest bets to take a step back.
The definition of taking a "step back" as it relates to this conversation is fairly straightforward. The following teams aren't projected to match their win total based on personnel and/or coaching losses. It doesn't mean the step back has to be huge—it could be by as little as one game—but it will be there all the same.
But to take it a step further, moving back also means there could be obvious deficiencies on offense and/or defense because of a major departure(s).
The 2015 season came to an official close on Monday night with Alabama’s 45-40 victory over Clemson in the national title game. While the SEC and ACC battled for the sport’s ultimate prize and the Pac-12 was left out of this year’s College Football Playoff, Commissioner Larry Scott’s league proved once again to be one of the deepest in the country even if it was not right there in the end.
What are in the cards for 2016 though? Can a team emerge as an elite power and make the final four? Will somebody take a big step back?
It’s time to take a look into our crystal ball and look ahead to 2016, sorting out how the Pac-12 stacks up next season based on everything from coaching changes to player departures.
Every FBS football team has hopes of winning the College Football Playoff National Championship, but this isn't a realistic goal for most schools. Only a select list of contenders are truly in the running each year, leaving the rest to strive for other achievements.
Such as winning a conference title, a goal that's well within reach of every team in the country.
There are 10 conferences at the FBS level—five so-called "power" leagues and then five more lumped together on a second tier known as the "Group of Five." Compare and contrast them all you want, but each is its own entity, and thus whoever wins that conference stands out from the rest of the pack.
As part of the long list of "way-too-early" pieces that come out during college football's offseason, we've predicted the winner of all 10 FBS conferences for the 2016 season. Check them out, and if you think otherwise, let us know in the comments section.
The LSU Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes currently occupy two of the nation’s top three recruiting classes, and their battle over 5-star defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence could help the winner take a big step forward toward landing the nation's top overall class.
Lawrence announced via Twitter that he will make his decision on Jan. 22—with the Tigers and the Buckeyes representing his two finalists.
The 6’3”, 305-pounder took an official visit to Columbus last October, and he will be on LSU’s campus this weekend—which will represent his last trip before he announces his commitment.
Which program has the best shot to land Lawrence next Friday?
LSU has been the overwhelming favorite to land Lawrence and with good reason.
Lawrence, who is the Pelican State’s top prospect in the 2016 cycle, the No. 5 defensive tackle and the No. 22 player overall, admits that he’s close to Tigers head coach Les Miles and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, according to Sonny Shipp of Geaux247.
"I think Coach Miles is a great guy,” Lawrence told Shipp. “The players love playing for him. To see him not there would be completely different for the program. I'm glad he stayed because it did help my process and probably other kids around the nation. I'm glad he stayed."
In addition to his relationship with the coaching staff in Baton Rouge, Shipp also notes that Lawrence has grown close to current Tigers such as defensive linemen Davon Godchaux and Christian LeCouture.
Considering he made multiple visits to Baton Rouge last year, Lawrence is very familiar with the inner workings of the Tigers program.
Miles and his staff will try to seal the deal with Lawrence this weekend, but it’s tough to discount Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer in any recruiting battle.
In addition to his official trip last fall, Lawrence also visited the Buckeyes for their summer camp.
Similar to the bonds that tie him to the Tigers, he has a strong relationship with the man that would be his position coach in Columbus if he elects to leave his home state for school.
“[Defensive line] Coach [Larry] Johnson, me and him have an excellent relationship,” Lawrence told Shipp. “From Day 1, whenever I told him I was interested, he soaked it all in and really recruited me hard. He doesn’t pressure me into anything and is a really great guy. He’s really the only one I talk to, and he’s a special man and definitely develops them.”
Since Meyer has taken over the Buckeyes program, he’s been able to recruit in foreign territories such as Florida, Georgia and Texas with great success. Still, he has yet to land a Louisiana native in that same span.
The Buckeyes make a fairly dangerous underdog in the race to land Lawrence, but the arrows in his recruitment seem to point toward him staying close to home in college.
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
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Coveted defensive tackle recruit Derrick Brown doesn't plan to deliver his collegiate commitment until national signing day, but he provided some insight on the decision Thursday afternoon.
The 6'4", 317-pound prospect revealed five finalists from the SEC that will compete for his Feb. 3 pledge:
Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State and Tennessee remain in the mix for Brown, who began receiving scholarship offers as a sophomore. This list excludes plenty of programs that pursued him during different stages of the process, including Clemson, Stanford, Texas and Florida.
Brown visited Bleacher Report's New York City offices last month and expressed intentions to finalize his college choice at least a few days before signing day, when he will publicly share a destination. In the meantime, there's a lot to look into here as he sorts through options.
It speaks volumes about annual coaching staff shifts in college football that none of his five finalists will enter the 2016 season with the same defensive coordinator as 2015.
Kirby Smart left his post at Alabama to become head coach at Georgia, where he hired former Crimson Tide colleague Mel Tucker as defensive coordinator. Alabama replaced Smart with former Bulldogs defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Tennessee unveiled a new defensive coordinator earlier this week, landing former Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Mississippi State saw defensive coordinator Manny Diaz depart for the same position at Miami and recently replaced him with USC linebackers coach Peter Sirmon.
Former Florida head coach Will Muschamp lasted just one season as defensive coordinator at Auburn, bolting in December for a return to head coaching with South Carolina.
Now that the dust has settled from staff perspectives, it's time for teams to present their very best sales pitch to one of America's most prized uncommitted talents.
Brown, rated No. 3 nationally among defensive tackles in composite rankings, is considered the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2016 recruiting class. He is fresh off the most dominant season of his high school career.
The Lanier High School (Buford, Georgia) standout secured 106 tackles—42 for loss—and 12 sacks as a senior. Brown was the lone defensive prospect named a U.S. Army All-American Player of the Year finalist.
He may join the winner of that award, 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason, at Georgia later this year. The top-rated passer enrolled early in Athens, headlining a Bulldogs recruiting class that's still chasing three in-state 5-star prospects.
There's no bigger Peach State target, figuratively and literally, than Brown. He is considered Georgia's top overall talent in this cycle and is set to spend an official visit in Athens this month, presenting the new regime an opportunity to impress.
“It’s definitely going to be something new at Georgia. I think I’ll make my final thought about the situation when I go up for my official visit in January," Brown told Bleacher Report.
The Bulldogs landed top-ranked defensive tackle Trent Thompson last signing day and carry 2016 commitments from a pair of 4-star defensive linemen. Smart opted to retain defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, providing continuity for Brown.
The positional coach also plays a pivotal role at Auburn, where Rodney Garner leads the defensive front. Brown didn't seem pleased with the departure of Muschamp, but consistency remains in place at a pivotal spot for his relationship with the Tigers, and Garner has been a fantastic recruiter here.
Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt previously helped spearhead recruiting efforts at Georgia, so a strong sense of familiarity is already in place. The newly crowned national champions welcomed Brown to Tuscaloosa for an official visit last month.
When it comes to Mississippi State, the ties go beyond football coaches and facilities. Brown's parents both graduated from the university, according to Chris Kirschner of DawgNation.com. Starkville was actually his first home.
“I would feel great if he went to Mississippi State because he would be near relatives, but this is Derrick’s life and our thing is to help guide him toward his decision. We want to help guide him toward his own path," his mother, Martha Brown, told Kirschner.
Georgia is the runaway favorite in Brown's crystal ball on 247Sports. He is projected to sign with the Bulldogs by 96 percent of 28 experts' predictions and, ultimately, Georgia looks like the probable pick.
Tennessee, expected to be his fifth and final stop on a whirlwind official visit tour, could be a wild card worth watching closely as Feb. 3 approaches. While discussing his potential collegiate landing spots, Brown displayed particular affinity toward Knoxville.
“It is like no other place I’ve been to," he said. "You can feel it in Knoxville. They call it VFL—‘Vol for Life’—and at the end of the day, those people really are Volunteers. They’re not Georgia fans one week and Florida fans the next week. Those people are Volunteers.”
With trips to Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn slated to occur during the next three weeks, expect a fluid situation to become more clear in the aftermath of those visits. Brown projects as an absolute force in SEC trenches, but it remains to be seen which uniform he will wear during those battles.
Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.
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There's one team every year.
No matter the season, one perceived bottom feeder emerges from the benthos and becomes a national title contender.
Consider Auburn's turnaround three years ago. Consider TCU in 2014. Consider the fact that Iowa just started 12-0!
From all those massive turnarounds, we can gather certain insights and attempt to predict the next out-of-nowhere College Football Playoff contender. My past two attempts included only teams with losing records, but Iowa and North Carolina, which both just played de facto playoff quarterfinals, forcing me to reconsider and at least include 7-6 teams.
Sound off below and let us know which teams you would add!
1. The Performance Factor
"The strongest indicator of how a college football team will perform in the upcoming season is their performance in recent seasons."
The above quote is a "basic" at Football Outsiders. If you think it makes no sense, click away. It's OK to disagree (as long as you have your reasons), but this idea provides the basis of my theory.
If you haven't clicked away yet, let's explain the methodology of that quote. Here's how Football Outsiders elaborated:
It may seem strange because graduation enforces constant player turnover, but college football teams are actually much more consistent from year to year than NFL teams. Thanks in large part to consistency in recruiting, teams can be expected to play within a reasonable range of their baseline program expectations each season.
Our Program F/+ ratings, which represent a rolling five-year period of play-by-play and drive efficiency data, have an extremely strong (.76) correlation with the next year’s F/+ rating.
Basically, instead of analyzing numbers from just last season, the idea is to analyze numbers from the past five seasons. Proceeding this way would have helped predict Auburn's breakout two years ago and TCU's breakout last season.
Because of that, I always start this process by computing Football Outsiders' average F/+ ratings over a five-year sample. I want a team that won seven or fewer games in 2015 but has still been a top-50 program since 2011.
From there, it's time to look at just this past year's performance.
For the sake of being faithful to the headline, I want a team that actually turns its season around. I don't want a team that was deceptively pretty good in 2015. That goes against the spirit of this concept.
Here's how those 12 teams fared in 2015:
From that list, you'll notice one major outlier.
Despite its 7-6 record, Washington finished No. 13 in the country—nine spots ahead of a Utah team that beat it in Husky Stadium, 10 spots ahead of an Oregon team that beat it in Husky Stadium and 37 spots ahead of an Arizona State team that beat it in Tempe.
How is that possible? It's a matter of consistency and ceiling. Washington lost six games and deserved to lose all six, but when it won, it really won. In six of the Huskies' seven wins, they performed above the 90th percentile, according to SB Nation's Bill Connelly.
The one in which they didn't was a road win at USC.
How does this factor into our analysis? I suppose that's a matter of semantics.
It's hard to call the 13th-best team in the country—even if it's only by one metric—an out-of-nowhere candidate. If I had to pick one team from that list to compete for next year's playoff, I'd choose Washington without thinking twice. It's just wrong to say the Huskies are coming from nowhere.
Similarly, I refuse to cast Texas and its Powerball-jackpot bankroll as an underdog. According to USA Today's finance database, the Longhorns rank No. 2 in athletic department revenue. The only team with more is Oregon, which has Phil Knight pulling the strings as a benefactor.
Texas can't come from nowhere, because it's coming from a throne made of money.
Eliminated Teams: Washington, Texas
2. The Luck Factor
Luck is what happens when a 50-50 factor skews away from that even center. Good luck is when it skews one way in your favor. Bad luck is when it skews one way in your disfavor.
Turnovers are not entirely luck, but elements of turnovers are. Fumble recoveries and interceptions per pass defensed are the two main stats to examine. Connelly explained this in his theory of adjusted turnover margin:
[Adjusted turnover margin is] what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games, and if the INTs-to-PDs for both teams was equal to the national average, which is generally around 21-22 percent.
If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles, dropped interceptions, or other lucky/unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.
Another big stat that regresses to the mean is close-game luck.
Over time, teams win roughly half of their one-score games. Because so few happen during a 12-game season, the sample allows for meaningful outliers. Had you looked at that after the 2012 season, when Michigan State lost five conference games by 13 combined points, you might have predicted, as some did, that the Spartans would make a run to the 2013 Rose Bowl.
On that note, let's examine how the remaining 10 teams fared in terms of close-game and turnover luck:
Of that list, only Nebraska endured double bad luck.
Everybody knows about the close-game failings—the Hail Mary against BYU, overtime against Miami, buzzer-beater losses against Wisconsin and Illinois—but it also suffered horrible luck on turnovers.
Based on how it played, it should have finished with a plus-0.5 turnover margin, according to Connelly's numbers. Instead the Huskers finished with a minus-12 turnover margin. Tack on nearly five points per game, and they would have finished 9-3 or 10-2.
Other teams, however, have fewer reasons to expect progression. Missouri and Arizona can't use on-field luck as a scapegoat.
Missouri can blame unique off-field distractions, while Arizona can maybe blame injuries. But for the purposes of this article, they are not prime bounce-back candidates.
Eliminated Teams: Missouri, Arizona
3. The Schedule Factor
If Iowa and North Carolina taught us anything, it's the importance of evaluating schedules.
We can only predict so much in the offseason—especially when it's three days old—but the Big Ten West and ACC Coastal were objectively bad divisions. It looked that way 12 months ago, it looked that way five months ago and it looked that way all year.
Iowa, for example, won 12 games despite ranking No. 38 in F/+. It started 12-0 because it failed to play a single top-30 team.
North Carolina, meanwhile, made Iowa's schedule look fierce. Of its 10 wins, two came against FCS teams and eight came against teams with five or more losses. It didn't beat a single four-loss team!
We can't anoint the next UNC or Iowa by looking at schedules, but we can eliminate teams from realistic playoff contention. Certain divisions will probably struggle as much as the Big Ten West and ACC Coastal, but other divisions will never be that bad.
Here is how next year's schedule breaks down, with "Top 25 opponents" referring to Ben Kercheval's super-early B/R poll:
And here are the opponents that yield those three red X's:
- Arizona State: at USC, vs. WSU, at ORE, at UW
- Kansas State: at STAN, at OU, vs. OKST, at BU, at TCU
- Auburn: vs. CLEM, vs. LSU, at MISS, at UGA, at ALA
Nebraska (Big Ten West), South Carolina (SEC East) and Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech (ACC Coastal) move on thanks to traditionally soft divisions and favorable home schedules.
Penn State (Big Ten East) is in a loaded division but gets three of its four best opponents—Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State—in Happy Valley. It almost got the X, but for now, let's keep it alive.
Eliminated Teams: Arizona State, Kansas State, Auburn
4. Stopping the Fight
Other crucial factors such as scheme change, returning starters and quarterback situation play a role in contending from nowhere, but let's spare those and stop the fight.
One team has led this battle from wire-to-wire, meeting every single benchmark on the list.
- It was better than its record last season.
- It has been a top-25 team since 2011.
- It suffered horrible turnover luck.
- It suffered horrible close-game luck.
- It plays an easy schedule.
The Huskers snuck into a bowl game at 5-7 but made the most of their good fortune and beat UCLA, 37-29.
They lose some important pieces, especially on defense, but return a four-year starting quarterback and basically every skill player.
One of those skill players, receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El could totally change the ceiling of this outlook.
He broke out as a freshman in 2014, ranking No. 1 in the nation in punt return average, but missed the start of last season with a foot injury and the end of the season after tearing up his knee against Purdue. He's expected to play next season, although his health will be a story all summer.
"You want him out there, but I want him to be healthy so I don't want to rush him," receivers coach Keith Williams told Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star. "I don't want to push it. If he's not ready to go, you just have to adjust and deal with it."
If Pierson-El returns, he'll join a loaded group of receivers alongside Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Stanley Morgan. If ever senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong, whose best days look as good as his worst days look bad, were to post a consistent season, now would be the time.
The schedule is navigable but tricky. Oregon visits Lincoln in September, and road trips to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa loom large. This team will have to start games faster, finish games stronger and play games cleaner than last year.
It's unlikely, but the numbers say it's possible.
Brian Leigh covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BLeigh35
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