Photo Essays  

 

Published: July 7, 2015 at 02:10 p.m.

15 for ’15: College football’s surprise teams

» Complete 15 for '15 series

CFB 24/7's "15 for '15" series continues with a look at some teams with the potential to surprise this fall, but the definition of “surprise” depends on the team here. In some cases, losing programs are primed to surprise with a season-long turnaround. In others, winning programs are on the brink of something bigger. All, however, have the goods to make 2015 a memorable season.

15 Photos Total

  • The Golden Gophers have the defense and kicking to win its share again, so a winning season won't be a surprise at all. What coach Jerry Kill's program needs is a stunner of an upset, and this could be the year for it. Last year, Minnesota went 0-4 against its four toughest opponents (Ohio State, TCU, Wisconsin, Missouri). It won't have to wait long for the chance: Minnesota opens the year against TCU on a nationally-televised Thursday night stage Sept. 3. 15

    Craig Lassig / Associated Press

    15. Minnesota

    The Golden Gophers have the defense and kicking to win its share again, so a winning season won't be a surprise at all. What coach Jerry Kill's program needs is a stunner of an upset, and this could be the year for it. Last year, Minnesota went 0-4 against its four toughest opponents (Ohio State, TCU, Wisconsin, Missouri). It won't have to wait long for the chance: Minnesota opens the year against TCU on a nationally-televised Thursday night stage Sept. 3.

  • It won't look pretty when the Rockets travel to Arkansas in week two with an offensive line that will have five new starters, but things should get a lot better from there for coach Matt Campbell's squad. Toledo was 7-1 in MAC play last year, so only a conference title would constitute a surprise, but we'll make that prediction here: the Rockets win their first MAC title since 2004. 14

    David Richard / Associated Press

    14. Toledo

    It won't look pretty when the Rockets travel to Arkansas in week two with an offensive line that will have five new starters, but things should get a lot better from there for coach Matt Campbell's squad. Toledo was 7-1 in MAC play last year, so only a conference title would constitute a surprise, but we'll make that prediction here: the Rockets win their first MAC title since 2004.

  • OU lost five games last year and opponents averaged nearly 40 points per game in those losses. CB Zack Sanchez and LB Eric Striker are returning stars on the defense, but this year, the Sooners stop unit should play better around them. Meanwhile, new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley has one of the nation's best power rushers in Samaje Perine to make the transition to his spread offense easier for all. An upset of either Baylor, TCU or both is a requirement for a surprise season, but OU will be capable of that. 13

    John Raoux / Associated Press

    13. Oklahoma

    OU lost five games last year and opponents averaged nearly 40 points per game in those losses. CB Zack Sanchez and LB Eric Striker are returning stars on the defense, but this year, the Sooners stop unit should play better around them. Meanwhile, new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley has one of the nation's best power rushers in Samaje Perine to make the transition to his spread offense easier for all. An upset of either Baylor, TCU or both is a requirement for a surprise season, but OU will be capable of that.

  • How does a team that won 11 games last year surprise anyone? If you're the Yellow Jackets, there's only one way to do it: Win the ACC. Georgia Tech lists here because they're perfectly capable of the feat, particularly if Florida State's passing attack takes a big step backward in the absence of Jameis Winston. Justin Thomas returns to lead Paul Johnson's triple-option offense, and it will be as maddening to defend as ever. 12

    Mike McCarn / Associated Press

    12. Georgia Tech

    How does a team that won 11 games last year surprise anyone? If you're the Yellow Jackets, there's only one way to do it: Win the ACC. Georgia Tech lists here because they're perfectly capable of the feat, particularly if Florida State's passing attack takes a big step backward in the absence of Jameis Winston. Justin Thomas returns to lead Paul Johnson's triple-option offense, and it will be as maddening to defend as ever.

  • Who could possibly have big expectations for Louisville the year after losing a school-record 10 players to the NFL draft? Six of those came off the defense, so nobody is quite sure what defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will come up with this year. But this much we know about Louisville football: Bob Petrino will find a way to score points, and there won't be a shortage of athleticism. A week-one takedown of Auburn might be asking too much, but the Cardinals will overachieve with an inexperienced squad. 11

    Garry Jones / Associated Press

    11. Louisville

    Who could possibly have big expectations for Louisville the year after losing a school-record 10 players to the NFL draft? Six of those came off the defense, so nobody is quite sure what defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will come up with this year. But this much we know about Louisville football: Bob Petrino will find a way to score points, and there won't be a shortage of athleticism. A week-one takedown of Auburn might be asking too much, but the Cardinals will overachieve with an inexperienced squad.

  • Taysom Hill is expected to be back at quarterback, and if last year is any indication, that could mean everything for the Cougars. Hill was 4-0 before an injury ended his season and the team finished 8-5. BYU's schedule is at its toughest early and easier late, so if Hill can get the team off to another hot start, watch out. 10

    Rick Bowmer / Associated Press

    10. BYU

    Taysom Hill is expected to be back at quarterback, and if last year is any indication, that could mean everything for the Cougars. Hill was 4-0 before an injury ended his season and the team finished 8-5. BYU's schedule is at its toughest early and easier late, so if Hill can get the team off to another hot start, watch out.

  • Bret Bielema is 2-14 in SEC play in his first two years, but the 2015 Razorbacks should be far more formidable this fall. The passing attack should be the best it's been since Bielema arrived with veteran quarterback Brandon Allen entering his third year as a starter. The vaunted rushing attack will, as usual, help keep scores lower and closer. The defense lost some key members of the front seven, including three draft picks, but Arkansas' days in the SEC West cellar should end emphatically. 9

    Gareth Patterson / Associated Press

    9. Arkansas

    Bret Bielema is 2-14 in SEC play in his first two years, but the 2015 Razorbacks should be far more formidable this fall. The passing attack should be the best it's been since Bielema arrived with veteran quarterback Brandon Allen entering his third year as a starter. The vaunted rushing attack will, as usual, help keep scores lower and closer. The defense lost some key members of the front seven, including three draft picks, but Arkansas' days in the SEC West cellar should end emphatically.

  • Ohio State isn't the only team in the country with a wealth of experience at quarterback. Chuckie Keeton returns to the Aggies this fall having recovered from a knee injury, and Kent Myers, who played the second half of last season, returns as well. USU had a rash of injuries last year and still managed to reach a bowl game. If healthy in 2015, look for much more from Keeton and the Aggies. 8

    Eli Lucero / Associated Press

    8. Utah State

    Ohio State isn't the only team in the country with a wealth of experience at quarterback. Chuckie Keeton returns to the Aggies this fall having recovered from a knee injury, and Kent Myers, who played the second half of last season, returns as well. USU had a rash of injuries last year and still managed to reach a bowl game. If healthy in 2015, look for much more from Keeton and the Aggies.

  • Nobody will be expecting the Cougars to play like Ohio State anytime soon, but there is little doubt they got one of the game's top offensive minds in new coach Tom Herman, who went directly from the offensive coordinator role on the Buckeyes national title team to UH. Expectations are measured due to heavy turnover, including at quarterback, but Herman will get plenty of mileage from returning running back Kenneth Farrow. Two Power Five schools await on the schedule: Louisville and Vanderbilt. 7

    Sharon Ellman / Associated Press

    7. Houston

    Nobody will be expecting the Cougars to play like Ohio State anytime soon, but there is little doubt they got one of the game's top offensive minds in new coach Tom Herman, who went directly from the offensive coordinator role on the Buckeyes national title team to UH. Expectations are measured due to heavy turnover, including at quarterback, but Herman will get plenty of mileage from returning running back Kenneth Farrow. Two Power Five schools await on the schedule: Louisville and Vanderbilt.

  • The Volunteers are one of two programs in the SEC (along with Arkansas) who are a popular offseason pick to make big strides in 2015. The play of quarterback Josh Dobbs in the second half of the season last year is a primary reason for the optimism, and the biggest reason UT was able to scramble into the bowl field last year. Plenty of questions remain on defense, but Butch Jones could find himself in late-season position for the SEC East title in what should be a wide-open division. 6

    Wade Payne / Associated Press

    6. Tennessee

    The Volunteers are one of two programs in the SEC (along with Arkansas) who are a popular offseason pick to make big strides in 2015. The play of quarterback Josh Dobbs in the second half of the season last year is a primary reason for the optimism, and the biggest reason UT was able to scramble into the bowl field last year. Plenty of questions remain on defense, but Butch Jones could find himself in late-season position for the SEC East title in what should be a wide-open division.

  • The disappointing season Christian Hackenberg had last season at quarterback has Happy Valley uneasy, but he'll look like a completely different quarterback this fall. One of the most talented arms in the country, Hackenberg's protection up front last year was simply horrible. With more time to throw behind a veteran group this fall, and against a schedule that doesn't get really tough until a mid-October trip to Ohio State, the Nittany Lions could match last year's regular-season win total (6) before November. 5

    Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press

    5. Penn State

    The disappointing season Christian Hackenberg had last season at quarterback has Happy Valley uneasy, but he'll look like a completely different quarterback this fall. One of the most talented arms in the country, Hackenberg's protection up front last year was simply horrible. With more time to throw behind a veteran group this fall, and against a schedule that doesn't get really tough until a mid-October trip to Ohio State, the Nittany Lions could match last year's regular-season win total (6) before November.

  • What was on its way to being another strong season in Stillwater was upended by TCU, who hammered the Cowboys 42-9 in October and opened the door for a five-game losing streak. Quarterback Mason Rudolph is poised to become one of the top passers in the Big 12 and the Oklahoma State defense should be significantly improved with pass rusher Emmanuel Ogbah leading the way. 4

    Rick Scuteri / Associated Press

    4. Oklahoma State

    What was on its way to being another strong season in Stillwater was upended by TCU, who hammered the Cowboys 42-9 in October and opened the door for a five-game losing streak. Quarterback Mason Rudolph is poised to become one of the top passers in the Big 12 and the Oklahoma State defense should be significantly improved with pass rusher Emmanuel Ogbah leading the way.

  • Last year, the Wildcats opened the season on fire and finished it ice cold with six straight losses. Quarterback Patrick Towles and the UK offense should be solid and the kicking game will be outstanding. Replacing pass rushers Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith won't be easy, but stopping the run will be the more critical area of improvement, anyway. 3

    Garry Jones / Associated Press

    3. Kentucky

    Last year, the Wildcats opened the season on fire and finished it ice cold with six straight losses. Quarterback Patrick Towles and the UK offense should be solid and the kicking game will be outstanding. Replacing pass rushers Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith won't be easy, but stopping the run will be the more critical area of improvement, anyway.

  • Coach Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats bring back 15 starters this year, and a two-year absence from the bowl season is primed to end. The schedule isn't an easy one, with Stanford to open the season, a road trip to Duke, and its toughest conference games on the road, as well. Northwestern's run defense should be significantly improved -- and it will have to be. 2

    Gene J. Puskar

    2. Northwestern

    Coach Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats bring back 15 starters this year, and a two-year absence from the bowl season is primed to end. The schedule isn't an easy one, with Stanford to open the season, a road trip to Duke, and its toughest conference games on the road, as well. Northwestern's run defense should be significantly improved -- and it will have to be.

  • Coming off a 5-7 season, the top of the Pac-12 can't even be seen from Tightwad Hill. But the Bears have one of the more intriguing pro prospects in the country at quarterback in Jared Goff. He can keep Cal in a lot of games. The Bears pass defense coughed up a whopping 42 touchdowns last year, and while the secondary could be a mess again, more is expected of a  pass rush that could help protect the back end. 1

    Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press

    1. California

    Coming off a 5-7 season, the top of the Pac-12 can't even be seen from Tightwad Hill. But the Bears have one of the more intriguing pro prospects in the country at quarterback in Jared Goff. He can keep Cal in a lot of games. The Bears pass defense coughed up a whopping 42 touchdowns last year, and while the secondary could be a mess again, more is expected of a pass rush that could help protect the back end.