10 college football teams that are looking much better in 2018

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (highlight video of Tennessee’s 2016 win over Missouri, its last over an SEC opponent, sold separately in Knoxville):

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THIRD QUARTER

IMPROVEMENT METER

The Dash applies a year-over-year growth gauge to 10 teams that look better now than they did at the end of last season, starting with six that have definitely improved:

Florida (21). Then: 4-7, No. 67 in the Sagarin Ratings. Now: 4-1, No. 17 Sagarin. Dan Mullen’s first season looked like it was off to a floundering start when the Gators lost at home in the second week to perennial punching bag Kentucky — but the Wildcats are undefeated, so that defeat doesn’t look nearly as bad now. Since then, Florida has won SEC road games in back-to-back weeks, something it hasn’t accomplished since 2012. What’s gotten better: The Gators are knocking the ball loose from opposing runners — they’ve recovered 10 fumbles in five games, most in the nation. Last year it took Florida nine games to recover a single opponent fumble.

Cincinnati (22). Then: 4-8, 128th Sagarin. Now: 5-0, 60th Sagarin. The Bearcats haven’t played a great schedule, but they have won three road games by a combined 72 points. For a team that was 5-12 on the road the previous three seasons, that’s progress. What’s gotten better: Luke Fickell’s second Cincy team is much tougher defensively than the first. Last year the Bearcats surrendered 31.8 points per game, 429 yards per game and 5.85 yards per play. This year those numbers are 12.2 points per game, 276 yards per game and 4.35 yards per play.

Syracuse (23). Then: 4-8, 72nd Sagarin. Now: 4-1, 42nd Sagarin. The Orange were achingly close to 5-0 but let an upset of Clemson get away Saturday in Death Valley (a fourth-quarter illegal lineman downfield penalty will be remembered for a long time in upstate New York). Still, Syracuse appears well on its way to its first bowl game in five years, and may be the second-best team in the ACC Atlantic. What’s gotten better: The Orange currently are averaging 234.6 rushing yards per game; if it holds up it would be the highest single-season average since 1996. The average per carry is 5.0, which would be the most since 1960 (when Ernie Davis was in school) and third-highest in school history.

Eric Dungey and the Orange almost pulled off an upset of Clemson on Saturday. (AP)
Eric Dungey and the Orange almost pulled off an upset of Clemson on Saturday. (AP)

Kansas (24). Then: 1-11, 157th Sagarin. Now: 2-3, 91st Sagarin. Any wins are good wins at what has been the worst Power Five program in the America, and the Jayhawks scored two of them in a row for the first time since the opening two games of 2012. They also won their first road game since ’09. What’s gotten better: A dramatic turnaround in turnover margin. Kansas has nearly gone worst to first in that statistic — it was No. 128 out of 130 last year at minus-17, and thus far this season is No. 1 at plus-12. The arrival of freshman running back Pooka Williams (474 yards and 7.9 yards per carry in four games) has helped as well.

Hawaii (25). Then: 3-9, 154th Sagarin. Now: 5-1, 107th Sagarin. The Rainbow Warriors’ only loss was by seven in the worst of all body-clock games — a noon kickoff EDT at Army, 6 a.m. Honolulu time. It’s also the only game where Hawaii has scored fewer than 40 points this season. What’s gotten better: The Warriors have their best quarterback since the Colt Brennan days in Cole McDonald. He’s thrown for 2,100 yards with 24 touchdowns and two interceptions, and run for 227 yards and two more TDs.

BYU (26). Then: 4-9, 150th Sagarin. Now: 3-2, 64th Sagarin. The Cougars are 2-1 in games decided by one score — winning at Arizona and Wisconsin — whereas last year they were 0-3 in that category. What’s gotten better: Not a lot — statistically, this is a pretty underwhelming team after the beatdown against Washington on Saturday. But they are putting the ball in the end zone, and between the uprights, more often. Last year BYU only scored more than 20 points once in its first eight games; this year it has done so three times.

Which teams have probably improved since last year:

Texas (27). Then: 7-6, 27th Sagarin. Now: 4-1, 20th Sagarin. The “Texas is back” proclamations have been mocked for several years, and The Dash isn’t going to volunteer for mockery yet. The Longhorns have played in wild spurts this season: down 24-7 to Maryland, then up 29-24 before losing; up 21-0 against Tulsa, then holding on to win 28-21; 34 unanswered points against USC; 21 unanswered against TCU; up 19-0 on Kansas State and then holding on to win 19-14. Facing Oklahoma in Dallas, this week would be an ideal time for a consistent 60 minutes. (Fact is, Texas has played the Sooners tough for the last five seasons, winning twice and covering the spread every time.)

Head coach Tom Herman (R) of the Texas Longhorns gets ready to bring his team out onto the field, prior to a game against the Kansas State Wildcats on Sept. 29, 2018 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, Kansas. (Getty Images)
Head coach Tom Herman (R) of the Texas Longhorns gets ready to bring his team out onto the field, prior to a game against the Kansas State Wildcats on Sept. 29, 2018 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, Kansas. (Getty Images)

Colorado (28). Then: 5-7, 69th Sagarin. Now: 4-0, 39th Sagarin. The Buffaloes have played one of America’s cushiest schedules: two winless Power Five opponents (UCLA and Nebraska), a one-win Group of Five opponent (Colorado State) and a winless FCS opponent (New Hampshire). That said, Colorado has shown some next-level explosiveness, averaging 40.3 points per game (most since the Buffs averaged 41.1 in 1989). Sophomore receiver Laviska Shenault continues to lead the nation in both receptions per game (9.5) and yards per game (145.3). The next three weeks will reveal what’s real: Arizona State on Saturday; at USC on Oct. 13; at Washington on Oct. 20.

Which teams have maybe improved since last year:

Michigan (29). Then: 8-5, 26th Sagarin. Now: 4-1, 8th Sagarin. The comeback win at Northwestern was a good sign of grit and composure under duress. And the opening loss to Notre Dame clearly is not a bad one. But nothing really matters until the Wolverines beat some teams with winning records. Those opportunities are coming in bulk: 3-1 Maryland on Saturday followed by 3-1 Wisconsin followed by 3-1 Michigan State followed by 4-1 Penn State.

Missouri (30). Then: 7-6, 51st Sagarin. Now: 3-1, 38th Sagarin. The Tigers turned a corner midseason last year, starting 1-5 and winning six of their last seven. But they also did it by beating bad competition. We’ll see whether early 2018 wins over Wyoming and Purdue amount to much, but Mizzou showed promise in a 14-point loss to Georgia. The Tigers were not overmatched physically, but made enough mental and execution errors to sink a battleship. Excluding a trip to Alabama on Oct. 13, they should have a chance in every remaining game.

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