Six teams that overachieved in 2015

Brent Rollins shares six teams that played beyond prediction this season, and breaks down what the future looks like for each program.

| 10 months ago
Mason Rudolph

Six teams that overachieved in 2015

The College Football Playoff field is set as Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State, and Oklahoma will give fans some great entertainment at their New Year’s Eve party this year.

With the playoff now in its second year, almost all discussion during the season is geared around who will participate in the conference championship games and, most importantly, who will be the four left standing with a championship opportunity.

However, just because a team does not achieve the ultimate prize does not mean their season was lost — impressive seasons still deserve recognition, and we’re here to do just that.

1. Northwestern (10-2)

  • Pre-season AP poll ranking: Unranked
  • Final regular season AP poll ranking: 12th
  • Standout PFF statistic:
    • Lowry ranked third overall among 4-3 DEs in run stop percentage at 9.7

After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, Pat Fitzgerald worked his magic this season with the Wildcats – and it began with a season-opening shutdown of eventual Pac-12 champion, Stanford, and their Heisman trophy finalist Christian McCaffrey, limiting him to only 89 yards combined rushing and receiving. While they struggled mightily in mid-season losses to Michigan and Iowa, road conference victories over Nebraska and Wisconsin helped them reach the 10-win plateau for only the 4th time in school history and a spot in the Outback bowl on New Year’s Day against Tennessee.

The offense was definitely not a sight to behold, finishing the season as PFF’s 62nd rated unit out of the 65 Power-5 conference teams. Sophomore workhorse RB Justin Jackson was one bright spot, finishing the season third nationally in rushing attempts (298) and 16th in yards (1,344). It was defensively, though, where the Wildcats shined, as they were our 15th-rated Power-5 defensive group, with standout edge defenders in seniors Lowry and Gibson. The two combined for 88 total QB pressures, including 14 sacks.

Coach Fitzgerald will need to use this season’s momentum and pick up some recruiting victories during the offseason, as they will lose half of their starting lineup to graduation, including Lowry and Gibson. While QB Clayton Thorson and Jackson will return, the biggest obstacle to repeating this year’s success in 2016 will be the schedule. Their October slate includes road games at Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State.

2. Oklahoma State (10-2)

  • Pre-season AP poll ranking: 28th
  • Final regular season AP poll ranking: 13th
  • Standout PFF statistic:
    • Ogbah is 2nd among 4-3 DEs in pass rush productivity (14.8) and third nationally with 68 total QB pressures, behind only Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun and Ohio State’s Joey Bosa.

After blowing out TCU at home in Week 10 and surviving at Iowa State in Week 11, Mike Gundy’s Cowboys were sitting at 10-0 and controlled their own destiny for a playoff spot. While the Cowboys’ dream season stalled with back-to-back losses against Baylor and Oklahoma, a 10-win season and trip to the Sugar Bowl to face Ole Miss is certainly worthy of recognition for a team not initially ranked in the Top 25 and coming off a 7-6 season (4-5 in Big 12) in 2014.

Sophomore QB Mason Rudolph led the way for the nation’s 9th highest scoring offense (41.2 points per game) and PFF’s 11th-ranked offense, with senior receiver Glidden and sophomore receiver James Washington combining for 105 catches and 10 TDs.

In 2016, the Cowboys will have one of the more formidable QB-WR combos in college football with Rudolph and Washington and numerous other starters returning, but they will more than likely lose Ogbah to the NFL draft. Their schedule also changes up a bit as well. An early season non-conference home game against Pitt adds to a daunting road task in the Big-12, with Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma all on the road.

3. Michigan (9-3)

  • Pre-season AP poll ranking: 39th
  • Final regular season AP poll ranking: 17th
  • Standout PFF statistic:
    • Jourdan Lewis allowed an NFL rating of 44.7 and a 36.5 percent completion rate on throws into his coverage

This might be the last time in a good while that Michigan appears on an overachiever list. While expectations were certainly higher in Jim Harbaugh’s first season, the jump from the previous Brady Hoke seasons of back-to-back sub .500 records in Big Teb play is one that should be highlighted – and also one that everyone knows could have been much more. Harbaugh ran his offense as he has at previous stops, but it was the No. 2 PFF rated defensive side that carried the Wolverines this season. Multiple players along the defensive line contributed, led by Chris Wormley and Maurice Hurst’s 71 combined QB pressures. Jourdan Lewis was dominant this season and highlighted earlier this week in PFF’s College Football Awards List as second only to Duke’s Jeremy Cash as our selection for the Jim Thorpe Award (top defensive back). Michigan now gets to play another traditional power that made a big comeback in 2015 with a new coach in the Citrus Bowl against Florida.

Another year of Harbaugh and recruiting (their 2016 class is currently sixth in the 247sports rankings) should have the Wolverine faithful thinking there is nowhere to go but up. However, this was an experienced team that must now replace senior signal-caller Jake Rudock (+2.7 grade) and multiple starters on defense. Further, the NFL draft could come calling for a few — in particular Lewis. While Michigan State and Ohio State are road games in 2016, Colorado replaces Utah as a non-conference opponent and it’s very conceivable that the Wolverines could head into the showdown at Michigan State 7-0.

4. Washington State (8-4)

  • Pre-season AP poll ranking: Unranked
  • Final regular season AP poll ranking: 31st
  • Standout PFF statistic:
    • Falk was pressured on only 21.3 percent of his drop backs, third-lowest among Power-5 QBs

In 2014, Mike Leach’s Cougars were 3-9 overall for the second time in three seasons and only 7-20 in Pac-12 play over those three seasons. However, in 2015 Leach found himself a QB in Luke Falk and was a few bounces away from a 10-win season – a missed field goal as time expired away from beating No. 5 ranked Stanford and a season-opening loss to FCS Portland State. The redshirt sophomore Falk was fourth nationally in yards and TD passes with 36, and second nationally in completion percentage while leading PFF’s seventh-rated Power-5 offense. Falk was also our second most accurate QB (79.3 percent, which factors in drops) and protected well by an offensive line that saw all five core players with a positive grade (the lowest being +5.8). Falk did miss the final game against Washington after a scary head injury, but it appears he will be available for the Cougars’ Sun Bowl game against Miami.

With Falk and three out of five starting offensive linemen returning in 2016, Washington State’s offense will continue to keep them in games. On the defensive side of the ball, the Cougars lose their top graded player, senior DL Destiny Vaeao (+19.6 grade), but current redshirt freshman Hercules Mata’afa (+16.8 grade) and his team leading 31 total pressures (including 7 sacks) returns. An early non-conference road test at Boise State will be tough before the Cougars dive into Pac-12 play.

5 and 6. Houston (12-1) & Temple (10-3)

  • Pre-season AP poll ranking = Unranked
  • Final regular season AP poll ranking: 14th and 24th, respectively

The focus was going to be on those not in the conference championship or playoff picture, but these two American Athletic Conference programs had seasons that cannot be ignored. Under first year coach Tom Herman, Houston won the AAC championship and was only a slip up at Connecticut away from a perfect 13-0 regular season. Earlier in the season, we highlighted Herman’s impact both on his new team and his old team, Ohio State, and that impact continued throughout the season. We saw it particularly with quarterback Greg Ward Jr. Ward, who finished with 1,041 yards rushing and 2,590 yards passing, 35 total TDs and with a PFF rushing grade  good for ninth among all RBs – one spot ahead of Ezekiel Elliott (+20.1 rushing grade). Ward was also an accurate passer, as his accuracy percentage was eighth nationally (77.5 percent).

The Cougars have already signed their biggest 2016 recruit, as Coach Herman recently agreed to a new five-year contract. With Ward and the majority of starters returning, the nation will find out just how good the Cougars are over the next two games, as they play Florida State in the upcoming Peach Bowl, and then open 2016 with the current playoff-bound Oklahoma Sooners.

The Owls were 2-10 in 2013, coach Matt Rhule’s first year. Now, Rhule just signed a new six-year contract to stay. Led by seniors Tyler Matakevich and Matt Ioannidis, the Temple defense was 16th nationally in points per game allowed (19.2) and PFF’s 17th overall defense. Matakevich was fourth nationally in defensive stops and fourth among all LBs with 100 tackles, while Ioannidis was eighth among all interior linemen in pass rush grade. Much like Houston, the Owls have already snagged their biggest recruit in Rhule. The schedule looks very similar in 2016, but Temple will have their work cut out for them, as they will lose half of their starters in the offseason.

  • Dylan Leeper


  • Brent

    Yes, Iowa was definitely an overachiever this season, but here was looking specifically at teams not involved in Power 5 conference championship games..thanks for reading!