Friday Five: College football teams least likely to win 10 games again in 2018

In last week’s Friday Five I took an optimistic approach. I ranked teams most likely to improve their win total by at least two wins in the upcoming 2018 season. This week I’m taking a more pessimistic — or, shall we say, realistic — path.

I’m ranking five teams that won at least 10 games in 2017 that are the most likely to fall short of that number in 2018.

Now, I have a limited pool of applicants to choose from here. Only 25 teams won at least 10 games last season, and I looked over all 25 of them to come to what I think is a strong list. When analyzing these teams I looked at what production they need to replace from last season, what kind of schedule they’re facing in 2018, and just the landscape around them.

It isn’t easy for any team to win 10 games in what’s typically a 13-game season, but the truth is it’s easier to get there in the MAC East than it is the SEC West.

Also, I want to make it clear that this isn’t a prediction. I’m not here to say these teams won’t win 10 games again this year. What I’m saying is if they fall short of that goal, I won’t be surprised.

All right, let’s give five teams some bulletin board material.

5. Toledo: As I just wrote above, common sense tells us that it’s easier for a good team to win 10 games in a division like the MAC West than plenty of other places, and I believe Toledo has reached “Excellent Program” status. It’s coming off an 11-3 season, and since Tim Beckman’s final year in 2011, the Rockets have failed to win at least nine games in a season only once: 2013. This despite a couple of coaching changes from Beckman to Matt Campbell and then to Jason Candle.

It makes this list for a couple of reasons, though. First of all, while the program has been consistent, it’s 11-win season in 2017 was only the second time it reached 10 wins in what’s been an impressive stretch. More than that, however, is the fact that this Toledo team loses Logan Woodside at QB and a lot of other key contributors. Toledo isn’t a program that recruits at the levels of powerful blue bloods that can reload. It’s a program that could find itself in a transition year. That doesn’t mean it won’t be a MAC contender again in 2018, but it could make reaching 10 wins a lot more difficult.

4. USF: The Bulls reached double-digit wins for the second straight season last year, and it was also the second time in program history (all 18 years of it) they reached that level. I’m a bit skeptical about a three-peat, though.

USF isn’t in a Power Five conference, but it is in what most consider to be the best Group of Five conference, meaning there’s a lot of competition. This is a USF team that will have to replace a lot of its production from 2017, including Quinton Flowers, whom I’d guess most would consider to be the greatest player in program history. That’s not easy to do. Throw in a couple of nonconference games with Georgia Tech and Illinois, and it’s not crazy to think this team could go 2-2 outside the AAC. That means it would need to go 8-0 in conference play to reach 10 wins, and I’m not sure that’s feasible with road trips to Tulsa, Houston, Cincinnati, Temple, as well as the regular season finale against UCF.

3. Notre Dame: Unlike most of the other schools on this list, Notre Dame doesn’t find itself in the position of having to replace most of its production. Instead, it has to replace the left side of its offensive line, which played a key role in the team’s offensive success last season. That won’t be easy.

Furthermore, the schedule is not kind. Notre Dame opens the season with a home game against Michigan, and it doesn’t get much simpler from there. A home game against Vanderbilt won’t be a pushover, nor will a road trip to take on a Wake Forest team that’s been pretty good the last few years. There are the yearly tilts with Stanford, Navy, and USC (with the Trojans on the road), and other ACC games at Virginia Tech and in South Bend against Pitt, Florida State and Syracuse. There’s also a road trip to Northwestern in early November.

Notre Dame certainly has the capability of winning 10 games against that schedule, but if the Irish do so, they’ll have defied the odds along the way.

2. Oklahoma State: I can’t believe I have Oklahoma State this high on the list either. After all, this is a program that’s won 10 games in each of the last three seasons, and six times in the last eight years. Mike Gundy’s built a well-oiled machine in Stillwater. One that’s somewhat foolish to bet against.

But I just have a feeling, man. OK, it’s more than a feeling. I have actual reasons to feel like a 9-win season could be on the way.

The Cowboys need to replace a lot in 2017. QB Mason Rudolph is gone. His top two targets in the passing game — James Washington and Marcell Ateman — are gone too. Now, Oklahoma State’s offense will still be potent because this is Oklahoma State, but that’s a lot of experience and production to replace.

Also, there’s Oklahoma State’s schedule. The nonconference is manageable, as all three games are at home against Missouri State, South Alabama and Boise State. The only one I see the Cowboys even having trouble is that Boise game. The conference slate provides some challenges, though. First of all, Oklahoma State has to play both Oklahoma and TCU on the road in November. There’s a very good chance they’ll be the underdog in both of those contests, and should they lose them, that means they’d need to be a perfect 10-0 in the rest of the schedule. It’s doable, sure, but it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys not slipping up somewhere along the way with a schedule that also includes road trips to Kansas State and Baylor, as well as home games against Texas Tech, Iowa State, Texas and West Virginia. Also, that West Virginia game is sandwiched between Oklahoma and TCU, making it even more difficult.

When you look at all of that, 9-3 (or even 8-4) doesn’t seem all that crazy, does it?

1. Northwestern: You know, I honestly forgot Northwestern even won 10 games last season. I think it was the quietest 10-win season possible because Wisconsin so thoroughly dominated the B1G West that you never had to pay much attention to the Wildcats. That doesn’t play a role in why I believe Northwestern is the least likely 10-win team to repeat the feat in 2018, however.

No, that has more to do with a team that has to replace its workhorse on offense Justin Jackson and the unknown status of quarterback Clayton Thorson who is recovering from an ACL tear suffered during the Music City Bowl. Plus, the Widlcats’ schedule that will not provide many easy wins.

While the Big Ten West has been the lesser of the conference’s two divisions, if you look around you’ll see that Northwestern not only must continue to deal with Wisconsin, but teams that should be improving as well. Iowa is going to be Iowa, and Nebraska should see a resurgence of sorts with Scott Frost now in Lincoln. Purdue was a team on the rise last season, and it’s possible that climb could continue in 2018. Minnesota enters its second season under P.J. Fleck, so improvement from the Gophers isn’t out of line, either. Even Illinois, the team most likely to finish last in the division, could prove to be a bit more feisty in 2018.

Northwestern not only has to play all of them (with Nebraska and Wisconsin in Evanston at least), but it also gets Michigan as well as a road trip to Michigan State. Oh, and there’s a nonconference game against Notre Dame in early November thrown into the mix as well.

So when I look at this team and this schedule, I see a team that could win eight games. I see a team that might even get to nine wins should it avoid major injuries, and things break right. But 10 wins? No, 10 wins just doesn’t seem all that likely.

Honorable Mention: Army, Memphis, Michigan State, TCU, UCF

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