Five teams that underachieved in 2015
Brent Rollins takes a look at five teams that fell short this season, and breaks down whether things can improve in 2016.
Five teams that underachieved in 2015
After examining which teams exceeded expectations this season, we’re taking a look at the other end of the spectrum. Each year, a handful of teams rank highly in preseason polls, and are selected as early picks to compete or win conference championships.
For a multitude of possible reasons, some just don’t turn out anywhere near as good as they were thought to be. Thus, let’s examine five Power-5 teams who did not measure up to their preseason hype, and finished the season outside of the AP Top 25.
- Auburn (6-6)
- Pre-season AP poll ranking = 6th
After just missing a national championship in first season as head coach in 2013 and a 12-2 record in SEC games through early November 2014, Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers have struggled, continuing into 2015 despite the lofty preseason ranking. Since that 12-2 start the Tigers are 2-9 in SEC play, including a last place finish in the SEC West this season with only victories over Kentucky and Texas A&M this season. Further, after having PFF’s fourth-highest rated offense in 2014, the Tigers regressed to 28th in 2015. Struggles and inconsistency at the QB position by both initial and end-of-the-season starter Jeremy Johnson (-8.5 grade) and middle-of-the-season starter Sean White (+3.3 grade) did not allow the offense to find its usual rhythm. Not a disastrous drop, but not enough to overcome a struggling defense only ranked 44th among the 65 Power-5 conference teams. In fact, one lasting image of the 2015 season will be the straight up fear LSU’s Leonard Fournette put into the Tigers’ defense on his way to 228 yards and three TDs.
Looking forward to 2016, one bright spot for the Tigers is this past season’s version was very youthful. Assuming there are no losses to the NFL draft, they will only lose six starters to graduation. The defensive line will return key contributors Montravious Adams, a hopefully healthy Carl Lawson, Devaroe Lawrence, and 247 sports No. 3-overall recruit in 2015 Byron Cowart. They better be ready to go from Week 1 one, as they open with Clemson and possible returning Heisman Trophy Winner Deshaun Watson.
- Georgia (9-3)
- Pre-season AP poll ranking = 9th
Wait, how does a team that wins nine games fall in the disappointment/underachieving category? Evidently, UGA Athletic Director Greg McGarity agreed with this assessment as head coach Mark Richt came to mutual agreement that he would no longer lead the program. The primary reason is how the Bulldogs actually played in 2015 and in big games in the previous seasons. The only FBS victory over a team with a winning record was an overtime win against 8-4 Georgia Southern of the Sun Belt Conference. Their best win of the season was against Auburn, the team above them on this list.
In addition, in their three losses to Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida, they were outscored by a combined total of 103-44. After an injury to star HB Nick Chubb (+7.7 grade in 5 games) on the first play of the Tennessee game, the inconsistent QB play from Greyson Lambert was highlighted even more so as the offense averaged 26.5 points per game for the season and only topped that average once in the last six games. There were some bright spots, as they sported PFF’s 12th-ranked defense and No. 9 edge defender in junior Leonard Floyd (+38.5 grade). Also a bright spot was the play of 247 sports’ No. 1 recruit in 2015, DL Trenton Thompson. Once inserted into the starting lineup, Thompson played exceptionally well before a late-season ankle injury slowed him.
Moving forward, the program now falls under leadership of Kirby Smart, Alabama’s current defensive coordinator through the playoff games and former UGA player. He’ll have his work cut out for him in order to keep Georgia’s currently seventh-rated recruiting class intact and get his systems installed and the team prepared for the SEC slate, as well as an opening game against ACC championship game participant North Carolina.
- Arizona State (6-6)
- Pre-season AP poll ranking = 15th
Picked by many to gain one of the coveted four spots in the playoff after a 10-3 2014 and plenty of returning starters, the Sun Devils season got off to a rocky start from game one, a 38-17 loss to Texas A&M, and they never seemed to truly recover. With a senior QB who’d played a good bit as a junior returning in Mike Bercovici (+16.0 grade), the offense was thought to be the strength of the team and, on the whole, played well enough to be PFF’s 22nd-ranked offense among Power-5 teams. The offense’s inconsistencies, as well as a defense that gave up too many big plays and points, led to the Sun Devils struggles.
In ASU’s six wins, Bercovici had a combined +15.1 grade compared to only a +0.9 overall grade in their losses. In five of those six losses (the exception being the final game at Cal when he played brilliantly, receiving a +10.6 grade after 395 yards and four TDs), Bercovici’s combined grade was -9.5. On the defensive side, despite the overall team struggles, LB Antonio Longino excelled, as he was the 9th rated LB and had 53 total QB pressures.
In addition to the always tough Pac-12 schedule, the Sun Devils have a non-conference date with Texas Tech early in 2016. Head coach Todd Graham will have to replace more than half his starting lineup, including most importantly the quarterback position. Bercovici took all but 13 of the 1,023 possible QB snaps for the Sun Devils.
- Georgia Tech (3-9)
- Pre-season AP poll ranking = 16th
Needless to say, it was not a good year for the two Power-5 teams in Georgia. Coming off an 11-3 season, an Orange Bowl victory and a top 10 ranking, Tech was thought to compete for the ACC Coastal Division crown again. Needless to say that never happened. Only the “Kick-Six” miracle finish against Florida State prevented the Yellow Jackets from going winless in conference play. The inexperience on the offensive line did not help Thomas as Freddie Burden (+3.7 grade) was the only regular OL to end the season with a positive grade. Given that, Thomas still greatly regressed in 2015. After a very respectable +15.3 overall grade and +19.6 run grade in 2014, he dipped to a -4.4 grade and his accuracy percentage was the worst among Power-5 starting QBs. The offense as a whole dropped from PFF’s 19th rated among Power-5 teams in 2014 to 44th with the defense not faring any better as they were our 50th rated unit among Power-5 teams – tis the numbers of a 3-9 team.
Looking ahead to 2016, most of the starters outside of the entire secondary return. If the offensive line can improve and Justin Thomas can regain his 2014 mojo, maybe the Yellow Jackets can get back to respectability.
- Arizona (6-6)
- Pre-season AP poll ranking = 22nd
Another team coming off 10 wins in 2014 with a returning starter at QB, Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona Wildcats looked set to challenge again for a spot in the Pac-12 championship game. However, injuries played a big factor for the Wildcats in 2015, and in particularly to one player – LB Scooby Wright. After being PFF’s No. 2 LB behind only TCU’s Paul Dawson and leading the 23rd overall rated defense among Power-5 teams in 2014, Wright was limited to only 89 snaps in parts of two games this season, though he is expecting to play in the upcoming bowl game. As a result, Arizona’s defense fell to PFF’s 60th rated defense out of 65 Power-5 conference teams.
Quarterback Anu Solomon (+18.8 grade) also missed crucial time early in the season in consecutive losses to UCLA (hurt during the game) and then the subsequent entire game against Stanford. The offense stalled as a result and the Wildcats faded down the stretch, finishing the season losing four of five games. For the first time in Rodriguez’s tenure at Arizona, the Wildcats did not have a 1,000 yard rusher – the running game key to Rich Rod’s spread attack.
On the bright side, Solomon returns in 2016 and the Wildcats are only losing six starters to graduation. Arizona has a non-conference game against BYU before getting into the Pac-12 schedule. With others in the conference possibly taking a step back and/or don’t have a returning QB, the Wildcats will look to get back to the conference championship game as they did in 2014.