- Every year, at least one team jumps from the bottom of the standings into bowl eligibility. Our writers weighed in on 2018's most likely candidates for that type of surprisingly quick turnaround.
In each of the last 20 years, at least one team that won two or fewer games the previous season has rebounded to finish bowl eligible the next year. In 2017, Fresno State, Virginia and Buffalo all emerged from the depths of the standings to reach the six-win mark (although 6–6 Buffalo was not sent to a bowl). The tricky part is determining which of the past year’s cellar-dwellers might make that leap; it takes a special cocktail of poor coaching, talent deficiencies and bad luck to drop that low in the college football hierarchy, and in most cases it takes wholesale changes to return to mediocrity.
Fourteen FBS teams won two or fewer games last fall. Which of them will follow that surprising script in 2018? SI’s college football writers attempted to make the case for four potential turnaround candidates below.
Bruce Feldman: Tulsa
As much as I would love to tout Kansas here (and I think diminutive incoming freshman running back Pooka Williams will be the most exciting player the Jayhawks have had in years), I’m not ready to go all in. Instead, I believe there’s a bounceback coming for Tulsa, which plummeted from 10 wins to two last season, though five of those 10 losses came by seven points or less. The schedule looks daunting: Only three of the Golden Hurricane’s 2018 opponents finished with losing records last fall, and one of those is Arkansas. The most talented quarterback in the program, Baylor transfer Zach Smith, won’t be eligible until ’19. I think they have a shot at getting back to 10 wins with Smith under center a year from now, but next year’s team can safely harbor bowl hopes as is.
Both returning quarterbacks Luke Skipper and Chad President got experience in 2017, although President is coming off a late-season ACL injury. Shamari Brooks is a gifted young back who ran for 10 TDs as a freshman despite missing all of November with a broken collarbone. A total of eight starters are back on offense and Tulsa also returns its two leading tacklers in big safety McKinley Whitfield (113 tackles, six for loss) and Cooper Edmiston (106 tackles). Manny Bunch looked like a potential star at safety before his sophomore campaign was cut short by a midseason leg injury.
Chris Johnson: Oregon State
The Beavers don’t leap off the page as a candidate to make a major improvement on the field in 2017. They haven’t beaten a Football Bowl Subdivision team since November 2016, and they finished last season 1–11 after getting drilled by 59 points in the Civil War against Oregon. They’re also losing their top tackler (linebacker Manase Hungalu) and rusher (tailback Ryan Hall); their leading returning passer, senior quarterback Jake Luton, was sidelined after only four games last season with a thoracic spine fracture; and their 2018 recruiting class ranked 70th in the country and last in the Pac-12, according to the 247Sports Composite. Plus, Oregon State plays in a challenging division, the Pac-12 North, that placed three teams (Oregon, Stanford, Washington) in the top 25 of Bill Connelly’s initial S&P+ rankings, and in conference play the Beavers also are set to face two squads projected to be in the running for the South title (USC and Arizona)—to say nothing of the Sept. 1 opener at non-conference foe Ohio State.
This is an irrationally optimistic gamble on a coaching change and a navigable early stretch of league play elevating the Beavers into one of the nation’s biggest surprises by midseason. New head coach Jonathan Smith, who played quarterback at Oregon State from 1998 to 2001 and most recently served as Washington’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach before being tabbed last November to return to his alma mater after Gary Andersen’s unexpected mid-season resignation, inherits a roster in need of a major talent upgrade. That’s going to take a lot longer than one offseason. What could change by this fall is the Beavers’ competitiveness in games against superior opposition. Rather than playing under an interim filling in for a coach who up and left three games into the Pac-12 schedule with $12 million remaining on his contract, Oregon State will be trying to make its mark in year one of a new regime.
Joan Niesen: Baylor
Coach Matt Rhule’s first season in Waco was pretty miserable, as the Bears continued to pick up the pieces from the sweeping fallout of a sexual abuse scandal that led to a program-wide house-cleaning. Baylor opened with a loss to FCS minnow Liberty, and its only win came over a characteristically terrible Kansas team. Everyone knew Rhule, who led Temple to consecutive 10-win seasons in ’15 and ’16, had taken on a project, but few imagined things would be as bad as they were last season. Still, Baylor’s record has to be chalked up, at least in part, to bad luck; four of its losses came by one score, including the 49–41 scare it put into Oklahoma, and its point differential (-11.6) was better than that of 22 FBS teams.
Rhule’s second year will have a bit of momentum from a recruiting class that finished on the edge of the top 30 in the 247Sports Composite rankings. With a bit more luck on its side—and a little more continuity at quarterback, after injuries and transfers left sophomore Charlie Brewer as the most experienced returnee—Baylor has a shot at a bowl in 2018.
Eric Single: Illinois
If it’s ever going to happen for Lovie Smith in Champaign, it has to happen now. The Fighting Illini have won a grand total of five games since plucking Smith from the NFL’s unemployed line two years in a move that remains just as puzzling as it was then, and they will carry the nation’s third-longest losing streak into 2018 after dropping their final 10 games last fall, only one of which was by single digits. Then they lost their top two returning quarterbacks on the same mid-January day, as Jeff George Jr. announced his intention to play elsewhere as a graduate transfer and Chayce Crouch retired from football entirely. That leaves Cam Thomas, who started two games as a true freshman and threw five interceptions without a touchdown pass after the season had been ruled a lost cause. By default, Thomas will receive the undivided attention of new offensive coordinator Rod Smith, who helped direct Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona offenses and should find enough success putting Thomas on the move to drag Illinois out of the bottom five in the FBS standings for total offense (280.4 yards per game, 126th) and scoring offense (15.4 points per game, also 126th).
While Smith may get another year if his third team falters—the two-deep around Thomas is littered with fellow rising sophomores—there’s reason to believe 2018 will be the final season the Big Ten West is a punchline among Power 5 divisions. Scott Frost’s turnaround record at UCF indicates Nebraska should be in the conversation for a division title by year two, Northwestern’s short-term quarterback uncertainty doesn’t override the program’s long-term stability, P.J. Fleck has recruited well enough to expect rapid improvement from Minnesota and Wisconsin isn’t going anywhere. After two layups to open the season against Kent State and Western Illinois, the Illini take on a Quinton Flowers-less USF in Soldier Field, then will prepare for pain as Penn State comes to town. If they find a way to knock off Rutgers and Purdue coming out of their late-September bye, they could be looking four to five wins at midseason, which would pass for something Smith & Co. can work with down the stretch.