5 college teams on the decline for 2017
Some teams are due for a slip in the next college season, and Josh Liskiewitz identifies five.
5 college teams on the decline for 2017
With Clemson’s stunning last-second (literally) victory over Alabama in the national championship, the college season has finally come to a close. The deadline for early NFL entries is now less than a week away, and thus most of the major names have announced their intentions. Whether it be by graduation or the enticement of the NFL, there are a number of teams that have suffered significant losses. Here’s a look at five schools that have perhaps lost the most, and thus could be in for a rough season ahead.
Clemson is the obvious place to start, as the national champions are going to suffer significant attrition, some of which we likely don’t know about yet. We do know that the outstanding offensive trio of QB Deshaun Watson, WR Mike Williams and RB Wayne Gallman will be in April’s draft. It’s impossible to truly quantify what Watson has meant to the Tigers, but here are some of the highlights: his adjusted completion percentage (this accounts for drops, throwaways, spikes, batted passes and passes altered by a hit taken during the release) sat at 75.6 percent this season, the eighth-highest mark in the country. Against the blitz, he completed 63.5 percent of his throws this year for 17 touchdowns, just five interceptions and a lofty QB rating of 104.3. His running ability was also a key component to Clemson’s offense, as he tallied 707 ground yards (424 after first contact) with 31 forced missed tackles on 155 carries.
Monday night, Williams showed exactly why he is likely to be the first receiver off the board in April’s draft, as his size, ball skills and speed make him a matchup nightmare in man coverage. Williams missed almost all of 2015 with a neck injury, but had an outstanding 2016 campaign that saw him snag 99 balls for 1,360 yards and 11 scores, while forcing an impressive 22 missed tackles along the way. Gallman led Clemson with 1,144 rushing yards, 702 of which came after first contact. Over the past two seasons he forced 123 missed tackles on the ground and scored 30 touchdowns, and did not give up a sack or hit in pass protection. The Tigers will also need to replace C Jay Guillermo, who was in all phases Clemson’s best offensive lineman. He gave up just one hurry against Alabama’s outstanding defensive front Monday, which was his only pressure yielded in Clemson’s final five games this season.
On the defensive side of the ball, Clemson is losing a ton of outstanding production from DT Carlos Watkins. He notched 12 sacks and 40 total pressures in 2016, with eight of those sacks coming in the final seven games. The front should be in good hands due to the returns of Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, but the losses on the back end are more significant. LB Ben Boulware had 47 total stops and was a solid coverage defender, and S Jadar Johnson had five interceptions and four pass break-ups, while opposing QBs had a rating of just 47.1 when throwing into his coverage. Without question, however, the biggest loss on defense is CB Cordrea Tankersley, who played like a top-10 pick throughout 2016. Opposing QBs completed just 46.9 percent of throws into his coverage, as he notched four picks, nine breakups and a QB rating against of 40.0.
In all, Clemson should actually be returning a significant portion of 2016’s championship roster (barring a mass early exodus to the NFL), including four of five offensive line starters, almost all of the wide receiver corps and possibly as many as seven defensive starters. This being said, replacing the school’s all-time greatest QB, his top weapons and a top-10 pick on defense will take time, and should result in a few more losses in 2017. However, don’t expect Clemson to be “down” for long, as recruits having been lining up to get into Death Valley in recent years, and last night’s monumental victory will only help.
Western Michigan rowed head coach P.J. Fleck’s boat through an undefeated regular season and a competitive Cotton Bowl loss to Big Ten power Wisconsin. Unfortunately for the Broncos, they are likely to take several steps backward, as Fleck has since moved on to Minnesota, and many of the key pieces on the outstanding offense have either graduated or will be moving on to the NFL.
The most obvious loss is WR Corey Davis, who will almost assuredly be a first-round pick in April’s NFL draft. He was one of the most consistently dominant players in the PFF college era, as he amassed 266 catches, 4,355 yards (2,142 after the catch) and 46 touchdowns in the past three seasons in Kalamazoo, and also forced 46 missed tackles in that span. Three-year starting QB Zach Terrell also departs, after a season that saw him post an 81.0 percent adjusted completion percentage, the best mark in the country. His accuracy percentage under pressure of 66.0 was fourth-best, and his PFF QB rating put him third.
The other critical loss to the offense is breakout RT Taylor Moton, who ranked ninth in all of FBS with a pass-blocking efficiency rate of 98.6 percent (no sacks, eight total pressures allowed). While the defense collectively played well, the unit had just one true star, and he also departs. OLB Keion Adams was the team’s only real pass rush threat, as he posted seven sacks, eight hits and 36 hurries for the season.
Western Michigan has yet to announce a new head coach. Regardless of who gets the call, he will have a tall order in front of him. Expect to see the offense transition to a heavy focus on the run, as RB Jarvion Franklin is among the returning players. Considering three offensive linemen and the three highest-graded run defenders will be back for the Broncos in 2017, this team could still be relatively competitive in the MAC if it gets some level of efficiency from the new QB. However, Western Michigan clearly won’t be anywhere close to competing for a New Year’s six bowl game, as it did in 2016.
Colorado’s streak of consecutive losing seasons ended at 10 this year, as the 2016 edition won 10 games en route to an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game. Head coach Mike MacIntyre in fact won as many games this year as he did his previous three years combined in Boulder. While this year marked a colossal leap forward for the program, Colorado will almost assuredly take a significant step backward due to the NFL talent graduating.
While QB Steven Montez gained significant experience in 2016, he will still be a significant downgrade from the departing Sefo Liufau, who will next be seen at the Senior Bowl. The most glaring difference between the two signal-callers in 2016 was their production on deep throws, which heavily favored Liufau. On throws that traveled at least 20 yards through the air, he completed 19 of 42 attempts for 733 yards and five scores, compared to Montez’s 33.0 percent completion percentage, four touchdowns and two interceptions. Four of Liufau’s incompletions on deep balls were drops, and his 131.4 QB rating on long throws was second-best in the country. Liufau also posted an accuracy percentage of 65.8 on pressured throws, which ranked him fourth among FBS QBs with at least 100 dropbacks. Montez, on the other hand, had an accuracy percentage of just 37.0, albeit from a smaller sample size. The good news for the offense is RB Phillip Lindsay will be back.
The defense is where the attrition is most severe, starting with the secondary. S Tedric Thompson and CBs Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon will all be moving onto the NFL after outstanding senior seasons, and all three should be top-100 draft picks. The trio combined for nine interceptions and 29 pass breakups in 2016. While the secondary headlined the 2016 Buffalo defense, it was LB Kenneth Olugbode who led the unit with an 88.1 overall grade (eighth-best among all inside linebackers). Rounding out the defensive losses for Colorado are nose tackle Josh Tupou, DE Samson Kafovalu and edge rusher Jimmie Gilbert, all of whom had overall grades higher than 79.0.
If Montez can take some significant steps forward in his passing ability, the offense has enough experience returning to recover, but the defensive losses will be impossible to overcome. Because of this, Colorado is unlikely to post a second consecutive winning season in 2017.
A compelling argument can be made for Western Kentucky as the Group of Five’s second-best team in 2016, behind only Western Michigan. The Hilltoppers finished the season with 10 wins, and their only three losses were to Alabama, Vanderbilt and Louisiana Tech, the latter a loss they later avenged in the Conference USA championship game. Much of Western Kentucky’s success was due to an explosive offense, as they scored at least 44 points in every conference game.
2017 will be a major year of transition in Bowling Green, however, as virtually every key player on offense has graduated, with the exception of QB Mike White. White’s 86.1 passing grade was fourth-best in the country, but he’ll be unlikely to match his 2016 output next season without the services of his two to receivers. Taywan Taylor, who ranked in the top 10 in targets, receptions, yards, touchdowns and QB rating when targeted, also departs, as does Nicholas Norris, who led all FBS slot receivers in yards per route run and was third in yards from the slot. RB Anthony Wales rushed for 453 yards, seven touchdowns and forced eight missed tackles in the final two games, and he also graduates. Rounding out the offensive losses are three starting offensive linemen, including the highest-graded tackle in the country, Forrest Lamp.
Western Kentucky will also see significant attrition on the other side of the ball in the form of the unit’s two best players. Defensive end Omarius Bryant led the Hilltoppers with 65 pressures, 20 of which came in the final two games. Do-everything linebacker Keith Brown also graduates. He led the defense with 65 total stops and seven sacks, and also had two interceptions and four break-ups in coverage.
The cherry on top is of course the loss of head coach Jeff Brohm, who notched 30 wins in 40 games with Western Kentucky, including back-to-back conference championships. He heads to Purdue, and in steps Mike Sanford Jr., who previously was the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. With the attrition of so much top-end talent, including numerous players who will be playing on Sundays next fall, Sanford clearly has his hands full and is unlikely to come anywhere near 2016’s win total.
Admittedly, a team coming off a five-win season with no bowl appearance is an odd one to find on this list. However, this weekend’s firing of head coach Sonny Dykes, the team’s skill-position losses and a difficult schedule has the 2017 Bears unlikely to win more than two FBS games.
While the defense was a disaster in 2016 (more on them in a bit), the offense averaged 37.1 points per game. This was due to the QB play of Davis Webb, who threw for 4298 yards, 37 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions. He was at his best against the blitz, where he threw 18 scores to just four picks, and posted a QB rating of 108.2. His college eligibility is now exhausted, as is that of top WR Chad Hansen. Hansen snared 92 balls for 1248 yards and 11 touchdowns in just 10 games in 2016, and had receptions of at least 30 yards in all but one of those games. Also graduating from this past year’s squad are Chris Borrayo and Jeremiah Stuckey, the only Bear offensive linemen with overall grades above 70.0 in 2016. The run games also takes a significant hit, with Khalfani Muhammad having graduated. He led the Bears with 827 rushing yards and 22 forced missed tackles, and averaged 5.4 yards per carry.
On the defensive side of the ball, DT James Looney accounted for 24.2 percent of Cal’s total QB pressures, and he will also be moving on. His run-defense grade of 81.6 was the highest on the 2016 team by 10 full points, and it was his effort on the goal line that preserved an upset win over Utah in Week 5.
Speaking of Utah, Cal’s three Pac-12 wins came against the aforementioned Utes, Stanford and UCLA. They avoid Utah in 2017, but are highly unlikely to win at Stanford or UCLA. In fact, the only road game that appears winnable next season appeared earlier on this list (Colorado), while the most manageable home conference games are against what will certainly be an improved Arizona squad and an Oregon State team that should continue trending upward. Add in a non-conference schedule that includes a visit from Ole Miss and an opening-weekend road trip to North Carolina, and it’s easy to see why expectations for Cal in 2017 should be so low.
Josh Liskiewitz | Analyst
Josh joined PFF as an analyst in 2015. During the season, his primary focus is college football (mainly the Big Ten). He is also heavily involved in PFF's NFL draft coverage. Prior to joining the team, he worked for six years with GM Jr. Scouting, an independent draft scouting service.