Predicting which college football teams will improve — and which will slump – Sports Illustrated

Fortunes can change in college football on very short notice. 
Programs that were national championship contenders find themselves bounced from the race, while those forgotten by history come back and make a push.
Last season proved that a first-time can still crack the code and make the College Football Playoff. But you have to have the talent, the coaching, the schedule, and the luck.
Which teams are on the rise? And which are set to take a tumble?
Previous ranking: Unranked
2021 record: 5-7
Strength of schedule: 18th
We'll stop short of saying Texas is back, the worn-out cliche that has become an offseason joke since the Longhorns last played for the national championship.
Texas has won 10 games in a season just once in the last 12 seasons since losing to Alabama in the Rose Bowl for the BCS title, and Steve Sarkisian won just five in his debut season that included a loss to Kansas at home.
But Sark and his staff were aggressive in the college football transfer portal this offseason, signing former 5-star quarterback recruit Quinn Ewers, cornerback Ryan Watts, receiver Agiye Hall, tight end Jahleel Billingsley, and linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey.
Paired with existing skill options on offense in lead back Bijan Robinson and receiver Xavier Worthy, the Longhorns shouldn't have too much trouble scoring. But this team getting anywhere depends on developing its pass rush, deep-field air defense, and its pass protection.
Previous ranking: No. 13
2021 record: 11-3
Strength of schedule: 54th
A year ago, Kenny Pickett defined the quarterback position and broke a slew of Pitt passing records that formerly belonged to none other than Dan Marino.
Pickett, in tandem with Biletnikoff wide receiver Jordan Addison, won 11 games and the ACC championship behind the 8th ranked total offense in college football.
But the Panthers lost those two key offensive ingredients after Pickett went to the NFL and Addison, whose 17 TD catches led the nation, transferred to USC.
The cause isn't totally lost after quarterback Kedon Slovis transferred in this offseason, and he'll have Jared Wayne on the perimeter and Israel Abanikanda working out of the backfield. 
But this offense is still further transition after its mastermind, coordinator Mark Whipple, left for Nebraska.
Previous ranking: Unranked
2021 record: 3-9
Strength of schedule: 51st
Scott Frost, a Nebraska legend when he played quarterback on the '97 national title team, is yet to produce a winning season at his alma mater as its head coach.
A year ago, the Cornhuskers lost all nine of their games by single digits, including close home losses to Ohio State and Michigan.
Nebraska has won just five of 25 games decided by one possession under Frost, a situation that calls out for expert quarterback play. 
And that's what Frost may have after signing Texas transfer Casey Thompson, who led the Big 12 in TD passes a year ago. Paired with Mark Whipple, Thompson and the Huskers should be more aggressive trying to push the ball downfield.
That's just one of almost 20 additions via the college football transfer portal, including defensive lineman Ochaun Mathis, one of the Big 12's best scrimmage players the last few seasons.
Analysts were quick to call Nebraska unlucky last season, but more often than not, luck is a matter of talent and strategy. The Cornhuskers improved on both fronts.
Previous ranking: No. 9
2021 record: 11-2
Strength of schedule: 20th
Mel Tucker did such a good job raising the Spartans out of the doldrums that the school's boosters dropped $95 million in his lap for the effort.
That effort included a perfect 4-0 mark in games decided by five or fewer points. Key to that success was transfer running back Kenneth Walker, the cannonball who blew through Big Ten defenses for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground.
Losing a threat like Walker is huge for this offense, which was able to capitalize off him to make their play-action a genuine threat to opposing teams. Payton Thorne returns at quarterback, as does 1,000-yard receiver Jayden Reed, but Sparty also loses three starters on the offensive line.
Not to mention Michigan State's moribund pass defense, a unit that ranked No. 111 nationally and dead-last in college football in air yards allowed per game.
Previous ranking: Unranked
2021 record: 4-8
Strength of schedule: 67th
It's easy to disregard USC as an unproven team, which it is, but maybe no other big-time college football program will look more different than how it did last season.
USC was a miserable four-win failure last fall, but lost more than three dozen players off its roster, revamped its coaching staff, and added almost two dozen transfers.
Some pretty high-profile transfers, too, including 5-star quarterback Caleb Williams, the No. 1 passer in the 2021 class, paired with Jordan Addison, who led college football in receiving TDs last fall, former OU wideout Mario Williams, and Oregon's leading rusher in Travis Dye.
So, expect a much better offense. But the Trojans still ranked 89th in total defense and this unit is a very open question. Still, via transfers, it improved at every position.
Don't expect to see USC in the College Football Playoff race this year, but it should be favored in almost every game save at Utah and against Notre Dame.
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