• These six programs are poised to enjoy a bump in wins in 2017.
By Chris Johnson
February 16, 2017

Every year a few teams take significant leaps, dramatically improving their records from the previous season. These jumps can save a coach's job or boost a program into the top tier of its conference.

Perhaps the best example in 2016 was Colorado, which notched 10 victories and won the Pac-12 South Division after going 4–9 in 2015. While six-win climbs are rare, we should see at least one similar upswing in 2017. The hard part is predicting the programs that could make that upswing months before the season kicks off. Talent, depth and coaching are important factors, but schedule strength is arguably of equal importance when projecting records. The list below comprises SI.com’s best guess at six programs whose win totals should increase this season.

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The fevered speculation surrounding coach Brian Kelly’s job security last season felt discordant with the product on the field. The Fighting Irish fell well short of preseason projections (SI ranked them 12th in the country entering Week 1), and the late-September firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder gave off the impression of an unsteady program casting about for answers. But Notre Dame's win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games. Among Notre Dame’s tight defeats was a double-overtime classic at Texas, a three-point decision against Duke and a seven-point margin against NC State in a contest that was more a battle with Hurricane Matthew than the opponent.

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By contrast, only one of Notre Dame’s wins came by fewer than 17 points (30–27 over Miami). Power numbers reflected this disparity: No other program had a larger difference (3.2) between its second order win total (a performance-based metric) and its real win total in 2016, according to SB Nation. The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean. The return of NFL-caliber offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey should stabilize an offense losing starting quarterback DeShone Kizer. Likely replacement Brandon Wimbush has drawn laudatory reviews since arriving in South Bend in 2015 as a heralded recruit, and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko brings a strong track record from Wake Forest.

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Few, if any, programs suffered a more stunning fall last season than the Ducks. After posting nine wins and finishing just one game shy of a Pac-12 North Division championship in 2015, Oregon slipped to 4–8 with a 2–7 league record in 2016. The precipitous tumble cost former head coach Mark Helfrich his job, and the Ducks made a promising move to replace him, hiring Willie Taggart away from South Florida.

Taggart hasn’t hesitated to point out that the task of molding the Ducks into the sort of consistent winner they grew into under former coach Chip Kelly won’t be simple. “It’s going downward, and we’ve gotta stop that,” Taggart told SI.com’s Lindsay Schnell in January.

While he may need time to lift Oregon onto the same competitive plane as conference cohabitants USC and Washington, the Ducks can take baby steps forward right away. They rank third nationally in returning production, according to SB Nation, including 91% on defense. That portends a smooth transition for new coordinator Jim Leavitt, who worked wonders shaping Colorado’s defense into a top-flight unit before decamping for Eugene in December. Offensively, the next step in sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert’s development should unfold with positive results under new quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo (whom Oregon hired from Oklahoma State earlier this month after David Reaves resigned following a DUII arrest). Plus, Herbert can lean on an all-league talent at running back in Royce Freeman, and he’ll benefit from the return of left tackle Tyrell Crosby and leading wide receiver Darren Carrington II as well.

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There are good reasons to believe last season was more of a blip than a signal of a steep descent for the Bruins. 2016 marked the first time since the program hired Jim Mora in December 2011 that UCLA won fewer than nine games and only the second time it didn’t crack the top 10 of the AP Top 25 Poll. The main culprit for the Bruins’ slide is not hard to identify: Star quarterback Josh Rosen, a preseason Heisman Trophy contender whom Sports Illustrated ranked the No. 11 player in the country last July, missed half of 2016 because of a shoulder injury. Of course, the Bruins didn’t seem on the verge of mounting a conference title run before Rosen went down in early October either. They’d lost three of the six games in which he was under center.

Assuming Rosen is fully healthy by the time UCLA opens its 2017 campaign against Texas A&M on Sept. 2, the Bruins shouldn’t have to sweat earning a postseason berth, an achievement that would, at minimum, clinch a two-win rise from 2016. UCLA pushed its offensive coordinator revolving door again this off-season, tabbing former Michigan assistant Jedd Fisch to replace Kennedy Polamalu. The move will give Rosen and the rest of the offense a fresh start after the Bruins finished 82nd nationally in S&P+ a year ago. And while accounting for the departures of defensive standouts Jayon Brown and Takkarist McKinley won’t be easy, UCLA can plug in five-star recruits at cornerback (Darnay Holmes) and defensive end (Jaelen Phillips) and another top-100 prospect at defensive tackle (Greg Rogers). Whether Rosen, other returnees and the incoming talent will cohere into the type of consistent two-way outfit capable of navigating a rigorous conference schedule (road games at Stanford, Washington and USC) and pushing the Trojans in the Pac-12 South is unclear.

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After being named South Florida’s new head coach in December, former Longhorns head man Charlie Strong said that it was Tom Herman’s job “to put icing on the cake” that Strong built in Austin. He’s right: Strong did great work remaking Texas’s roster into something that could compete at the top of the Big 12 and, at the very least, dream about playoff berths. While those goals might be unrealistic for 2017, it would be a disappointment if the Longhorns don’t add a few more wins to their ledger after missing the postseason and losing to Kansas in 2016.

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Herman’s history of quarterback development augurs a sophomore leap for Shane Buechele, and if Buechele plateaus after a solid true freshman season, his possible replacement, 2017 four-star prospect Sam Ehlinger, is already on campus. All-conference left tackle Connor Williams is back to protect Buechele’s blind side, and Buechele will have weapons on the perimeter to work with like Armanti Foreman and Devin Duvernay. Some combination of Chris Warren III, Kyle Porter, Kirk Johnson and highly touted recruit Toneil Carter should make up for D’Onta Foreman’s immense production (2,028 yards, 15 TDs) at tailback. On the other side of the ball, a bounceback year from linebacker Malik Jefferson could fuel a defensive resurgence in the unit’s first season under former Houston coordinator Todd Orlando. Texas also gets Oklahoma State and Kansas State at home, though a trip to USC in September could bring a sobering reality check.

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Much like multiple other teams on this list, TCU endured a major decline on the field in 2016, but it also has major potential to reverse that decline in 2017. With blue-chip quarterback recruit Shawn Robinson enrolling early and participating in spring workouts, the Horned Frogs should get an upgrade at the most important position this season. Even if Robinson doesn’t seize the starting job from Kenny Hill as a true freshman, he can push Hill to make strides after an underwhelming 2016 campaign in which he ranked 68th nationally in passer rating and tossed a Big 12-leading 13 interceptions.

The loss of co-offensive coordinator Doug Meacham to the same position at fellow Big 12 member Kansas hurts, but Hill and Robinson can excel in a similar dual-OC arrangement with holdover Sonny Cumbie and the promoted Curtis Luper. The addition of former Cal coach and Air Raid practitioner Sonny Dykes, who groomed Golden Bears product Jared Goff into the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in 2016 and led one of the nation’s most prolific offenses during his tenure in Berkeley, should assist Cumbie and Luper as they try to infuse TCU’s own version of the Air Raid with the dynamism that drove the Horned Frogs to 23 wins combined in 2014 and 2015.

Playmakers like tailback Kyle Hicks and wide receiver KaVontae Turpin will help, and the bet here is that head coach Gary Patterson can make corrections to the defense after it finished 51st nationally in S&P + in 2016. However, a conference slate with trips to Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State is cause for skepticism.

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The first year of the Kirby Smart era didn’t do much to validate Georgia’s decision to fire a proven winner (current Miami coach Mark Richt) as part of yet another attempt by a Power 5 program to poach a Nick Saban disciple in the hope of capturing some form of the Alabama coach’s successful recipe. Smart led Georgia to eight wins in 2016, two fewer than what the Bulldogs notched in Richt’s final two seasons in Athens. They also suffered disappointing defeats to SEC bottom feeders Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.

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Despite the slightly disappointing debut, Smart should be able to get his team into double-digit win territory in 2017. Georgia fans would be satisfied with nothing less. The biggest source of optimism is the return of talented running back tandem Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The former could reclaim his status as one of the nation’s top rushers while mounting a case for the Heisman with some progress from Georgia’s offensive line (it ranked 101st and 113th, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards and Power Success Rate statistics in 2016), and the latter will help keep Chubb fresh by lightening his workload. Then there’s the Bulldogs’ passing game, which is trending upward with sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason back after logging a full season as the starter in 2016 and primed for an even larger second-year surge than Buechele. Georgia also has a favorable path in one of the worst divisions in the country; its SEC schedule looks manageable outside of road trips to Tennessee and Auburn.

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