College football breakthrough and bounce-back candidates for 2022

NCAAF

Michigan, Baylor and Utah State went a combined 5-16 in the abbreviated 2020 college football season. Predictably, this knocked all three programs off of the radar screen entering the 2021 season. Embattled head coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan picked up a smattering of preseason AP Top 25 votes but were picked fourth in the Big Ten East. Baylor was voted eighth in the Big 12, closer to last-place Kansas than the top half of the conference. Utah State, under new head coach Blake Anderson, was voted fifth in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division, far closer to last-place New Mexico than the rest of the pack.

All three won their respective conferences in 2021, going a combined 35-7 overall.

Michigan and Baylor both finished in the AP top 5 — UM’s first in 22 years, BU’s first ever — while Utah State finished ranked for just the fourth time in school history. And after improving from four to seven wins in 2020, Texas-San Antonio not only sustained its gains in Jeff Traylor’s second season in charge, the Roadrunners surged again, leaping to 12-2 and a Conference USA title.

These teams were all among the most pleasant surprises of the 2021 season. But if you looked at the right numbers beforehand, you wouldn’t have been completely surprised.

Each year, I take a look at the teams most likely to rebound from frustrating seasons and the teams most likely to sustain growth from a positive season. Michigan, Baylor and Utah State all appeared on the former list in 2021, while UTSA appeared on the latter. Who qualifies for this year’s lists? Let’s find out!


Teams most likely to sustain 2021 gains

When our favorite team enjoys a surge in a given season, we like to act like it’s the new reality. This is just what we are now! It’s only going to get better from here! Reality, however, tends to set a different course. We typically see a rubber band effect of sorts, a settling of the foundation after a year of growth.

From 2016 to 2020, 59 teams (11.8 per season) saw their SP+ rating rise by at least 10 adjusted points per game in a given season; more than half of them proceeded to regress the next season, and 20% stumbled by at least 10 points, giving away most or all of the previous season’s gains.

A few managed to take another step forward, however. Fourteen of the 59 teams (24%) improved by at least another five points the following season. A few — UCF and North Texas in 2017, Fresno State in 2018, Arkansas and UTSA in 2021 — followed a double-digit leap with another double-digit leap.

Following the COVID season of 2020, a whopping 20 teams took huge steps forward in 2021: UTEP (+19.6 adjusted points per game), Utah State (+16.5), Western Kentucky (+16.2), Fresno State (+15.3), Michigan (+14.6), Baylor (+14.2), Kansas State (+14.1), Syracuse (+13.2), UTSA (+13.2), Tennessee (+12.9), NC State (+12.5), Miami (Ohio) (+12.5), Wake Forest (+12.4), Bowling Green (+11.7), Pittsburgh (+11.1), Arkansas (+11.0), Texas Tech (+10.6), Florida State (+10.5), Middle Tennessee (+10.1) and Michigan State (+10.0).

If trends hold, eight or nine of them could improve further, and about four might take another leap. Here are the teams I think are most likely to do so.

NC State

2020: 8-4 record, 54th in SP+ (3.6 adjusted PPG, or 3.6 points better than the average college football team)
2021: 9-3, 14th (16.1)
2022 projection: 9-3, 18th (14.9)

NC State is college football’s cursed program, one capable of producing seemingly endless high-level draft picks but one with just a single season of double-digit wins and no top-10 finishes in its history. Head coach Dave Doeren has come painfully close, hitting nine wins in three of the last five years. The Wolfpack will take another swing at it this fall.

They were just four points from an unbeaten ACC season last year, and per SP+ they are projected underdogs in just one game. The defense not only returns nine starters from a unit that broke through to 14th in defensive SP+ last year, but also returns 2020 starters Payton Wilson (linebacker) and Cecil Powell (cornerback) from injury. And while the offense can play things a little too conservatively at times, it does return quarterback Devin Leary, receivers Thayer Thomas and Devin Carter and a veteran line. This is as loaded and balanced a team as Doeren has produced.


Tennessee

2020: 3-7 record, 50th in SP+ (4.6 adjusted PPG)
2021: 7-6, 10th (17.5)
2022 projection: 9-3, ninth (18.5)

Realizing you have decent-sized expectations for Tennessee is a pretty scary moment, but (a) quarterback Hendon Hooker and head coach Josh Heupel were not responsible for any of UT’s past failings and (b) their marriage is an intriguing one. Despite starting 2021 on the second string, Hooker finished with 2,945 passing yards and 803 non-sack rushing yards; after Oct. 1, he ranked 11th in Total QBR.

With Hooker joined by leading rusher Jabari Small, leading receiver Cedric Tillman and all but one member of last year’s O-line two-deep, this offense will hum. But hitting the projected mark of 9-3 or better will require the Vols’ defense to hold up better than it did last season, when it slipped from 24th in defensive SP+ at the midpoint to 47th at the end. That seven starters and most of the second string return is encouraging, but the better this fast-paced offense does, the more snaps the defense will see.


Fresno State

2020: 3-3 record, 91st in SP+ (-4.6 adjusted PPG)
2021: 10-3, 33rd (10.8)
2022 projection: 10-2, 37th (9.8)

I generally stick to teams that haven’t undergone a coaching change for this list. Fresno gets an exception because Jeff Tedford is returning to town — he retired two seasons ago and was replaced by Kalen DeBoer, who is now at Washington — and some of the players he inherits are players he originally recruited.

On paper, DeBoer’s 2021 Bulldogs were the best team in the Mountain West; they won at UCLA and San Diego State and nearly beat Oregon but fell three points short of a division title. Now they return quarterback Jake Haener (4,096 passing yards, 33 touchdowns last year), leading receivers Jalen Cropper and Josh Kelly and four starting linemen.

Veteran defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle needs to fill some holes on the line and tamp down big-play glitches in the secondary, but the Bulldogs might have more proven pieces than anyone else in the MWC.


Florida State

2020: 3-6 record, 85th in SP+ (-2.9 adjusted PPG)
2021: 5-7, 53rd (7.6)
2022 projection: 8-4, 28th (12.4)

It speaks to how far Florida State fell in recent years that a season that featured maybe the most hapless Hail Mary-ish loss you’ll ever see was also a season of definitive improvement. But it was! An 0-4 start all but clinched a fourth straight losing season, but the Noles won five of their last eight with big plays on offense and efficiency on defense.

Head coach Mike Norvell should be able to follow up on that growth. The defense loses star ends Jermaine Johnson II and Keir Thomas but returns almost everyone else, and speedy incumbent quarterback Jordan Travis could have FSU’s best line in ages in front of him. The skill corps has some questions to answer, especially if high-efficiency slot man Winston Wright Jr., a transfer from West Virginia, can’t play (or isn’t 100%) because of a spring car accident. But this could be a borderline top-30 team, something the Noles haven’t had since 2017.


Bowling Green

2020: 0-5 record, 126th in SP+ (-24.1 adjusted PPG)
2021: 4-8, 111th (-12.4)
2022 projection: 5-7, 99th (-8.1)

Since winning the MAC title with Dino Babers in 2015, Bowling Green has averaged just 2.7 wins per season, and fourth-year head coach Scot Loeffler has thus far averaged just 2.2. His BGSU offenses have been consistently dismal (average offensive SP+ ranking: 126.7), but the Falcons’ defense perked up last fall under coordinator Eric Lewis, allowing just 10 points each in three of four wins.

A wave of experience could boost them toward bowl eligibility. All but two members of last year’s defensive two-deep return, including stars such as linemen Karl Brooks and Walter Haire and super-active cornerback Davon Ferguson. Even if the offense continues to stink — a decent possibility even with most of last year’s lineup back — a sturdy defense will give the Falcons a chance against a schedule that features about six relative tossups. If anything ever is going to happen for Loeffler in northwest Ohio, it will happen in 2022.


Syracuse

2020: 1-10 record, 111th in SP+ (-12.9 adjusted PPG)
2021: 5-7, 79th (0.3)
2022 projection: 6-6, 57th (4.5)

Babers left Bowling Green for Syracuse in 2016 and has enjoyed just one winning season; the 10-3 run of 2018 was a thrill ride, but the Orange plummeted to 1-10 in 2020, and after a 5-4 start last fall, they lost their last three games by an average score of 38-11.

Still, 5-7 represented undeniable improvement. The Orange jumped to 54th in defensive SP+ despite a painfully young secondary, and while the offense wasn’t good, it had at least one sure weapon in running back Sean Tucker. They currently are 11th in my returning production rankings, and Babers added the coaching duo of Robert Anae and Jason Beck — who were responsible for Virginia’s recent surge in points — to further modernize the attack. If the freshly renamed JMA Wireless Dome provides enough of a home-field advantage to boost the Cuse to early tossup wins against Louisville, Purdue and Virginia, a bowl bid goes from possible to likely.


Kansas State

2020: 4-6 record, 70th in SP+ (0.1 adjusted PPG)
2021: 8-5, 21st (14.2)
2022 projection: 7-5, 38th (9.8)

I’m defying the numbers a bit by including Chris Klieman’s Wildcats here, but I think their ceiling is quite a bit higher than their No. 38 projection. Running back Deuce Vaughn, right tackle Cooper Beebe, defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah and linebacker Daniel Green give them the most proven and dangerous quartet of stars in the Big 12, and that doesn’t even include maybe the nation’s most dangerous return duo in Malik Knowles and Phillip Brooks.

Depth could be an issue, and the Wildcats could be more vulnerable than other high-upside teams when it comes to falling victim to an ill-placed injury or two. But the upside is indeed lofty, especially if a change of scenery lifts veteran Nebraska transfer quarterback Adrian Martinez, who finished a solid 28th in Total QBR in 2021 despite a frustrating string of late-game miscues. Martinez and Vaughn could form a delightfully efficient backfield, and KSU has the potential for a run to the Big 12 championship game if the injury bug is kind.


Teams most likely to rebound from a 2021 stumble

The rubber band effect benefits some teams, too. From 2016 to 2020, 66 teams (13.2 per season) regressed by at least 10 adjusted points per game in SP+. Sixty percent of them improved to some degree the next season, and 35% improved by at least five PPG.

There weren’t as many collapses as surges in 2021, but 13 teams still fell by at least 10 PPG: Northwestern (-21.1), Indiana (-19.8), USC (-17.3), Georgia Southern (-15.2), Washington (-15.1), Buffalo (-14.8), BYU (-14.2), Rice (-13.4), Florida (-12.9), Stanford (-12.2), Ball State (-11.1), North Carolina (-10.7) and Colorado (-10.7). On average, we would expect about eight to improve, four or five by a lot. Who is most likely to pull off a memorable rebound in 2022?

USC

2020: 5-1 record, 13th in SP+ (16.7 adjusted PPG)
2021: 4-8, 82nd (-0.6)
2022 projection: 7-5, 51st (5.9)

It’s virtually guaranteed that USC will improve this fall, both because of what new coach Lincoln Riley has added to the roster via the transfer portal and because the bar could not possibly be lower. In 2021, the Trojans finished a downright appalling 4-8 (their worst record since 1991) and 82nd in SP+ (their worst ranking since 1961). Clay Helton was fired just two games in, and USC collapsed down the stretch after a long run with an interim coach (Donte Williams).

Granted, any comparisons to 1961 are tinged with positivity, given that USC surged to the national title under John McKay in 1962. Even if you don’t think that Riley’s Trojans are capable of matching the top-five hype they are receiving — and I most certainly do not, considering the rebuilding job required on defense — predicting a rebound is easy. Quarterback Caleb Williams (a transfer from Oklahoma), Biletnikoff-winning receiver Jordan Addison (Pitt) and running back Travis Dye (Oregon) should help to transform the offense into a top-15 unit, and with any improvement whatsoever on defense, a run at nine or 10 wins is likely.


Washington

2020: 3-1 record, 19th in SP+ (14.3 adjusted PPG)
2021: 4-8, 83rd (-0.7)
2022 projection: 7-5, 54th (5.0)

Like USC, the Huskies are an easy pick because of the depths to which they fell in 2021. Kalen DeBoer has moved up from Fresno to take over a team that finished in the SP+ top 20 for five straight seasons (2016-20) before disintegrating to 4-8 and 83rd in SP+ last year.

The defensive front seven should be dynamite with tackle Tuli Letuligasenoa, edge rushers Zion Tupuola-Fetui (now healthy after a 2021 Achilles injury) and former five-star recruit Sav’ell Smalls and linebacker transfers Cam Bright (Pitt) and Kris Moll (UAB). And the offense probably can’t get any worse after a massive youth movement. Quarterback Dylan Morris and receivers Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Taj Davis — all sophomores — return, the line boasts at least two all-conference candidates and DeBoer brought in plenty of competition via the transfer portal. Even if this team isn’t ready to challenge Oregon in the Pac-12 North, it should absolutely rebound to at least top-50 caliber play.


North Carolina

2020: 8-4 record, 12th in SP+ (17.1 adjusted PPG)
2021: 6-7, 59th (6.4)
2022 projection: 8-4, 34th (10.7)

Mack Brown’s second head-coaching tenure at North Carolina will begin its second act this fall, as two of the people who defined his first three years back in Chapel Hill — quarterback Sam Howell (drafted by Washington in April) and defensive coordinator Jay Bateman (fired by Brown in January) — are gone.

Either sophomore Jacolby Criswell or blue-chip redshirt freshman Drake Maye will take over for Howell, and the QB1 of choice will have the explosive duo of Josh Downs and Antoine Green at his disposal. But the defense, now led by Gene Chizik — Brown’s DC at Texas and, for the last five years, an SEC Network commentator — will determine whether UNC’s record improves a little or a lot. Experience levels are high, and tackle Myles Murphy and corner Tony Grimes have star potential. The Tar Heels allowed at least 30 points in nine of their last 11 games; achieving simple competence would take them a long way.


BYU

2020: 11-1 record, seventh in SP+ (23.1 adjusted PPG)
2021: 10-3, 46th (8.9)
2022 projection: 9-3, 25th (13.1)

Predicting a team to “rebound” after winning 10 games might seem odd. After the Cougars’ brilliant 2020 run, they managed to survive turnover and continue playing at a high level offensively, but an inexperienced defense plummeted from 21st to 79th in defensive SP+, and their record was boosted by four one-score victories. Now their schedule gets more difficult, featuring road trips to Oregon and Boise State, a Vegas battle with Notre Dame and visits from Arkansas and Baylor. Improvement on paper might not produce improvement in the win column, but it could!

The Cougars return 16 of the 17 defenders who saw at least 250 snaps. Plus, cornerback Micah Harper and linebacker Keenan Pili are back from injury, and Vanderbilt cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally comes to Provo. If the defense improves to a top-50 level, the offense could make sure the Cougars have a chance in every game. Quarterback Jaren Hall is outstanding, the receiver duo of Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney is explosive, and Cal transfer Christopher Brooks could help mitigate the departure of running back Tyler Allgeier. This team has top-20 potential.


Florida

2020: 8-4 record, sixth in SP+ (23.9 adjusted PPG)
2021: 6-7, 30th (11.0)
2022 projection: 7-5, 23rd (13.9)

It’s low-hanging fruit to pick Riley and USC as major candidates for a first-year leap, and DeBoer and Washington also have a low bar to clear. But Billy Napier and Florida have managed to fly pretty far under the radar in his first offseason — too far.

As is always the case when a coach takes over a job in which their predecessor was fired, there are potential stumbling blocks in Gainesville. The skill corps is very thin outside of receiver Justin Shorter and transfers Montrell Johnson (Louisiana) and Ricky Pearsall (Arizona State), and the defense wasn’t nearly disruptive enough last fall. But quarterback Anthony Richardson has flashed immense potential, key defenders Ventrell Miller (linebacker) and Jaydon Hill (cornerback) return from injury, and the schedule includes only a couple of truly likely losses (vs. Georgia, at Texas A&M). SP+ gives the Gators a 69% chance of improving on last year’s record, and if Richardson clicks, that percentage will go a lot higher.


Stanford

2020: 4-2 record, 60th in SP+ (2.0 adjusted PPG)
2021: 3-9, 105th (-10.2)
2022 projection: 6-6, 77th (-1.0)

We’ll finish with one more shockingly low bar out west. Stanford got USC’s Helton fired with a 42-28 win in Week 2, then upset unbeaten Oregon a few weeks later. Those were two memorable wins … and two of only three that David Shaw’s Cardinal snared all season. The defense was dismal for a third consecutive year, and the offense collapsed from 31st to 104th in offensive SP+.

As with BYU’s defense, a lot of Stanford’s offensive issues could be tied to inexperience and injuries, particularly in the passing game. Quarterback Tanner McKee, big slot man Elijah Higgins, tight end Benjamin Yurosek and one of the most experienced O-lines in the country should assure an offensive rebound, and that alone could improve the win total. But the defensive issues are endemic at this point. Shaw’s loyalty to defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has not been rewarded, and all four linemen in last year’s rotation are gone. Stanford will score more points and win more games, but a major rebound will require quite a few defensive upgrades.

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