Hope springs eternal every…well, spring. It’s a time for boundless optimism for every program in the Football Bowl Subdivision, from the elite through perennial bottom-feeders hopeful that this coming season will bring a breakthrough.
One piece of advice: Take all spring game statistics with a grain of salt. Positivity rules the day, but only to a point. That quarterback who throws for 500 yards against his team’s backup defense? I wouldn’t expect that to carry over to September. (Unless you’re Texas Tech, Western Kentucky or Washington State, to name a few.)
But anything seems possible in the spring. This week’s top 10 list asks the question: Which of last season’s last-place finishers is best poised to springboard into the postseason? It’s a process that begins this month, as teams hit the field and provide an initial glimpse at what they may bring to the table in 2017.
1. Oregon (2016 record: 4-8, 2-7)
The Ducks don’t lack for talent or motivation. The biggest issue is how well Oregon adapts to Willie Taggart’s new vision for the offense, and whether Jim Leavitt can mirror his impact at Colorado while installing his defense. If so, Oregon may find itself back among the top three in the Pac-12 Conference North division. Even if the team struggles, the Ducks should manage to find six wins.
2. Syracuse (2016 record: 4-8, 2-6)
A leap up the conference standings is in the cards for Syracuse, which begins Dino Babers’ second season with ample confidence on offense and hopes for some degree of improvement on defense. Even if the defense lags, the offense will have enough comfort in Babers’ foolproof system to lift the Orange to six or seven wins in 2017.
3. Utah State (2016 record: 3-9, 1-7)
Much like at Duke, Utah State saw itself encounter enormous difficulties in 2016, falling to the bottom of the Mountain West Conference after several seasons of extraordinary growth behind Gary Andersen and Matt Wells. That won’t last: USU won’t win the Mountain Division, but the Aggies are destined for six or more victories and a place in the postseason.
4. Missouri (2016 record: 4-8, 2-6)
Missouri is a sleeper team to consider in the Southeastern Conference. Yes, playing in the East Division helps; this team would be pegged to finish last in the West, for example. But don’t sleep on the Tigers’ ability to leapfrog several spots up the divisional ladder and potentially challenge Florida and Georgia for the East championship.
5. Duke (2016 record: 4-8, 1-7)
Last season won’t be replicated. While Duke did plummet to the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division, that dip stands in contrast to the program’s development into an annual bowl team under David Cutcliffe. With a deeper and more talented roster than ever, the Blue Devils need only to take care of business in several winnable road games to secure a winning finish.
6. Cincinnati (2016 record: 4-8, 1-7)
It’s hard to imagine Cincinnati being any worse. The change from Tommy Tuberville to Luke Fickell should address the Bearcats’ consistency and energy, at least, and that alone might be enough to lead Fickell’s first team to add two or more wins to last year’s total and find a spot in the postseason. The East division of the American Athletic Conference is top-heavy, but there’s room for a fourth bowl team.
7. Marshall (2016 record: 3-9, 2-6)
The Thundering Herd’s decline in 2016 was troubling, to put it lightly. Is Doc Holliday’s program the team that won at least 10 games in three years in a row or the team that fell to the bottom of Conference USA in 2016? For now, it seems more logical that Marshall will rebound and contend in the East division rather than maintain its place at the bottom of the division.
8. Mississippi (2016 record: 5-7, 2-6)
This probably won’t happen – not when the Rebels are reeling amid off-field issues and struggling on the field to regain some foothold in the SEC West division. But even after a sluggish national signing day in February, Ole Miss brings enough talent and explosiveness into the 2017 season to add at least one win to last year’s total.
9. Rice (2016 record: 3-9, 2-6)
The pressure is on David Bailiff, who has achieved a high degree of success at Rice but needs to bring the Owls back into the postseason to ensure his job security moving forward. There are reasons for optimism on offense, which should improve significantly behind an experience line. The issues are on defense. Should Rice simply house an average defense, however, this should be a bowl team.
10. Ball State (2016 record: 4-8, 1-7)
Included in Ball State’s eight losses in Mike Neu’s first season were six defeats by 10 or fewer points. In other words, the Cardinals weren’t too far from six wins a year ago. With another full offseason under Neu’s direction, look for Ball State to rebound at least slightly in a somewhat open and undecided Mid-American Conference West Division.