Below is a list that by December I will either tattoo on my forehead or delete from the FootballScoop archives. No in between.
1. Temple: Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, considering Matt Rhule’s Owls finished a bowl-eligible 6-6 in 2014 but were not selected for a bowl game. That won’t be a problem this year. Not with defensive coordinator Phil Snow returning all 11 starters off a defense that ranked 11th nationally in yards per play allowed in 2014. In fact, the Owls return an absurd 19 starters from a year ago, tied for second nationally according to Phil Steele, making Temple a trendy choice to not only play a 13th game but a 14th as well by appearing in the inaugural American championship game.
2. California: The Bears were incredibly close a year ago, finishing with five tantalizing wins while losing by four at Arizona (on a Hail Mary), by two to UCLA, by eight at USC, and by seven to BYU and holding second half leads against all but the Trojans. (To be fair, they did squeak out a double-overtime win over Colorado followed by a 60-59 defeat of Washington State.) Typical of a rebuilding program, Cal started 4-1 and finished 1-6. With another year of depth under Sonny Dykes (the Bears rank 10th in returning starters nationally), expect Cal to finish games – and subsequently the season – stronger. The defense figures to improve in year two under Art Kaufman, as does junior quarterback Jared Goff, owner of a 35-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio from a year ago.
And while we’re already out on a limb, let’s go one step further: Cal will ruin somebody’s season with a late October/November upset.
3. Kentucky: Similar to the team above, Kentucky started strong (5-1 on Oct. 11) and petered out fast (0-6 after). And while it’s easy to point to back-to-back losses to LSU and then-No. 1 Mississippi State as the point the Wildcats packed it in for the season, Kentucky did hold a fourth quarter lead over Louisville in the season finale before falling 44-40. In addition to three gimmes in Louisiana-Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky and Charlotte, the following must all come to the freshly-refurbished Commonwealth Stadium: Florida, Missouri, Auburn, Tennessee and Louisville. And that’s not counting winnable road trips at South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
4. Ball State: Admit it, you had no idea Ball State even missed a bowl in 2014. After soaring to 19-7 in 2012-13, Pete Lembo’s Cardinals returned to earth with a 5-7 campaign a year ago. Losing running back Jahwan Edwards will sting, but keeping quarterback Ozzie Mann healthy – 10-to-2 TD-INT ratio, including a 20-of-29 performance for 286 yards with three touchdowns and no picks in a season-ending upset 41-24 upset of Bowling Green – will offset much of that. Know what else will help? The 17 other returning starters.
5. Texas Tech: In 2014, Texas Tech forced 15 turnovers – bad – and committed 28 – even worse. How do you fix that? For one, you hire defensive coordinator David Gibbs and his 30 turnovers forced away from Houston. Next, you finally get some stability from a veteran quarterback. After alternating between true freshman Baker Mayfield and true freshman Davis Webb and true freshman Patrick Mahomes and true freshman Vincent Testaverde while wading around a number of injuries, it appears Mahomes has settled in and won the job. All he did was average 8.4 yards per attempt with 16 touchdowns against only four picks a year ago, culminating in a 598-yard, six-touchdown performance in a 48-46 near-upset of Baylor to close the season.