Every year there are teams that under- or over-perform compared to expectations. Sometimes teams are just bad. Whether it’s injuries, a bad record in close games, or an unusually tough schedule, some fan bases find themselves thinking it’s just not their team’s year. It often sets up for that team to exceed expectations the following year. The following teams are ones which I think should improve their win-loss record drastically from last year’s finish.
The Terrapins were about as bad as any Power 5 team this side of Kansas last year. They only left the field victorious three times and one of those was against Richmond. There are reasons for hope entering 2016 however, and by hope I mean they should at least be competitive in most games. Maryland only returns 12 starters, but one of them is the starting quarterback. Perry Hills isn’t going to be confused for Peyton Manning (ok, pre-2015 Peyton Manning), but he rushed for over 90 yards in four games and gives the offense a dual-threat quarterback that can keep defenses off-balance. Then there’s the schedule. The Terps played Bowling Green and West Virginia in the non-conference last year, two offenses they didn’t have a chance of keeping up with. The 2016 non-conference slate consists of Howard, Florida International, and Central Florida and crossover games against Wisconsin and Iowa have been replaced with much more manageable foes in Purdue and Nebraska. Maryland won’t be battling for a conference championship anytime soon, but with any luck it can find its way to a bowl game this fall.
LSU certainly isn’t going to surprise anybody this upcoming season, especially when you consider they are likely to find themselves in the top ten of the pre-season polls. I still think they are a team that could be much better than they were last year. I don’t think the Tigers were as good as their 9-3 regular season record would indicate and to increase their win total by even two games in 2016 would be a significant improvement over the 2015 squad. LSU only has four true road games and most importantly, none of those are in Tuscaloosa. If Brandon Harris can hold onto the starting job, he should improve on a season where he threw only six interceptions. Part of the reason was he spent most of his time handing off to Leonard Fournette, but if Harris can be even an average passer it will make the LSU offense exponentially better. Then there’s the defense, one which looked nothing like the Tigers’ stop unit we’ve come to expect. The Tigers’ run defense was gashed in their three losses. That should change this year with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Aranda led a Wisconsin Badgers defense that has been near the top statistically each of the past few seasons. With 18 starters returning, it’s no wonder the Bayou Bengals are on the short list of title favorites in 2016.
The Cardinals finished a disappointing 7-5 last year after some had pegged them as an ACC sleeper. That was shot down early as the ‘Ville started off 0-3 before rattling off some wins through the easier part of its schedule. The opening game loss against Auburn looks bad, but they only lost by a field goal to both Houston and Clemson, who each finished as top ten teams. The Cardinals could never really get consistent QB play, and that will be the key to a turnaround. Lamar Jackson is dynamic, if not the passer Bobby Petrino is accustomed to. Petrino will lead a 2016 team that returns 18 starters, tied for most in the country. Jackson’s dual-threat ability combined with a defense that should be one of the best in the country provide a team that has the talent to hang with almost anyone on a given Saturday. But the passing game will need to show more consistency if that improvement is going to show up in the win column. With a schedule that will have them favored in at least nine of their games, there are no excuses.
Chad Morris had plenty of success as the offensive coordinator for Clemson, but after leaving to become SMU’s head coach. He had to watch the Tigers march all the way to the title game while enduring a 2-10 2015 season in Dallas. The Mustangs have a lot of things working in their favor heading into this season however. It usually takes time for a new coach to get things going, so the team should see improvement across the board just from being in Morris’ system for the second year. This is especially the case for an offense that returns nine starters, including quarterback Matt Davis. Davis won’t be throwing for 500 yards a game anytime soon, but after the opener against Baylor, he didn’t have a single game with multiple interceptions the rest of the year. The offense should keep the team in games in 2016, when the schedule lightens up quite a bit. Not only did the Mustangs face Baylor and TCU in the non-conference last year, they also had conference games against Houston, Temple, Navy, and Memphis, all teams who were much better than anyone could have anticipated. All six of those teams are on the schedule again this year but Temple, Navy, Memphis, and TCU will all likely be worse than their 2015 editions. With improvements for the Mustangs and the rest of the conference falling back to the pack, we may see Chad Morris’ squad bowling in just his second year on the job.