Which 2017 College Football Surprises Are Set Up to Sustain Their Success?

Lane Kiffin engineered one of the year's biggest turnarounds at Florida Atlantic, but the Owls weren't the only team to surprise the nation. Who has what it takes to turn one great year into multiple?
Publish date:

When college football teams unexpectedly deliver seasons that deviate from their recent baselines, it is often difficult to project what comes next. A confluence of factors ranging from schedule strength to roster experience to turnover luck may propel a squad to a few Ws above what it typically registers in a given year, only for it to fall back to its typical win range the next year. In other cases, a team’s record bump in one season may be indicative of something more enduring: that it has gained a foothold on a higher rung of the food chain and is positioned to keep winning at a similar level for the foreseeable future.

Some of the outfits whose win-loss marks improved substantially last fall feel like they have some staying power, while others seem more likely to be one-year wonders. Below, we ranked five notable cases from the 2017 season, from the teams most likely to maintain their success going forward to the ones least likely to keep up the pace.

1. Florida Atlantic (2017 record: 11–3)

Lane Kiffin almost certainly won’t be at Florida Atlantic for the entirety of the 10-year contract extension he agreed to in December, but the Owls will have him around as head coach for at least one more season. That’s good news for reasons that have nothing to do with the attention he attracts to the program with his social media presence. In his first season in Boca Raton, Kiffin proved he was far more than a publicity stunt for a rudderless mid-major doormat, improving the Owls’ win total by eight to 11–3 and leading them on a 10-game season-ending winning streak, capped by a 50–3 beatdown of Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl.

Anything less than another Conference USA championship in 2018 would register as a disappointment for Florida Atlantic, which returns stud running back Devin Singletary (1,920 yards, 32 touchdowns in 2017) and super-productive linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair (147 total tackles). The Owls’ biggest challenges will come in nonconference play: They open at College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma on Sept. 1 and also travel to reigning American Athletic Conference champ Central Florida in late September. A Power 5 athletic director is bound to look past Kiffin’s history of flameouts and give him another shot as a head coach if he keeps this up, but the success Kiffin is having could attract ambitious up-and-comers looking to use FAU as a launching pad to a big-time job.

2. Fresno State (10–4)

It’s easy to explain why the Fresno County Board of Supervisors declared one day earlier this month (Feb. 6) “Fresno State Football Day” and “Coach Jeff Tedford Day.” In his first year in charge of the program after a four-year absence from the head coaching ranks that followed a lackluster closing stretch to his 11-season tenure at California, Tedford engineered one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the country, lifting the Bulldogs to a Mountain West West Division title, a win over Houston in the Hawai’i Bowl and a nine-win improvement from the previous year despite a grueling two-week road stretch in nonconference play against Washington and Alabama. Most of the pieces that fueled Fresno State’s surge will be on campus this fall. (So will Tedford, despite his name being mentioned in connection with multiple openings as the coaching carousel spun.)

According to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, the Bulldogs return a higher percentage of their production (79%) than all but 11 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, including starting quarterback Marcus McMaryion, first-team all-conference linebacker Jeffrey Allison and second-team all-conference wide receiver KeeSean Johnson. Fresno State’s out-of-league schedule should be more manageable this season than it was in 2017, and back-to-back September trips to Minnesota and UCLA present opportunities for marquee wins. The Bulldogs also should be the frontrunner to take the West again and get another crack at Boise State in the MWC title game. Competing for the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six slot feels like a reasonable goal.

3. Arizona (2017 record: 7–6)

Returning one of the best quarterbacks in the country is about as promising a starting point as any first-year head coach could ask for. In Khalil Tate, Kevin Sumlin has a dual-threat playmaker who can build on a scintillating sophomore season and continue to torch Pac-12 defenses. The only passer who registered a higher mark in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, won the Heisman Trophy on the strength of one of the best statistical campaigns ever produced by a QB. Tate should have a shot to get to New York in 2018 if he can rein in some of the errant throws that led to him posting one of the conference’s worst completion percentages and a 3–5 touchdown-to-interception ratio as Arizona dropped three of its four November contests.

Nabbing Sumlin to replace Rich Rodriguez in the middle of January, well after college football’s biggest hirings and firings went down, was a commendable move that should pay off both on the field this season and on the recruiting trail long-term, where the ex-Texas A&M coach has a track record of plucking coveted prospects from the state of Arizona (five-star quarterback Kyle Allen, five-star wide receiver Christian Kirk.) The Wildcats lost steam down the stretch in conference play in 2017, but they should be heard from in the Pac-12 South race in 2018. Their top challenger, USC, is breaking in a new quarterback following the departure of Sam Darnold to the NFL, and the Trojans visit Tucson in late September.

4. Purdue (2017 record: 7–6)

Any optimism about the Boilermakers’ outlook for this fall should be tempered by the potential for a defensive downturn. They ranked in the lower half of the Big Ten in scoring and total defense last season, and they face one of the FBS’s biggest rebuilding efforts on that side of the ball. Purdue returns only 41% of its defensive production, good for 125th in the country, according to Connelly. But that turnover shouldn’t prevent the Boilermakers from making noise in a division, the Big Ten West, with no obvious No. 2 behind defending champion Wisconsin. Elijah Sindelar, the quarterback who shook off a torn ACL to lead Purdue to wins in three of its last four games, including a three-point triumph over Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl, will be back to battle with senior David Blough, who’s also recovering from a major injury (dislocated ankle) suffered last season.

Whether it’s Sindelar or Blough under center, he’ll have last season’s top running backs and several proven pieces along the offensive line to work with. The schedule looks favorable, too, considering Purdue’s biggest purported competitors in the West (Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa) all will make the trek to Ross-Ade Stadium this season. Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm is going to remain a hot candidate for more high-profile gigs—Tennessee reportedly considered him last year before ultimately settling on Jeremy Pruitt—but they can realistically aim for bowl eligibility as long as Brohm is stalking the sidelines.

5. Iowa State (2017 record: 8–5)

The quarterback-running back tandem that powered last season's Cyclones to their most wins since 2000 will return. It wasn’t clear whether that would be the case until the program announced earlier this month that Kyle Kempt has been granted a sixth season of eligibility. He and junior tailback David Montgomery can help Iowa State keep pace with the scoreboard-rattling offenses populating the Big 12 even without first-team all-conference wide receiver Allen Lazard, whose eligibility expired in 2017. Kempt’s first start coincided with one of the most stunning upsets any team pulled off last season, a 38–31 win at Oklahoma in early October, and he proceeded to guide the Cyclones to a 5–3 record, capped by a one-point win over AAC power Memphis in the Liberty Bowl.

Barring Kempt convincing the NCAA to make him college football’s version of Jalan West, the former walk-on won’t be around a year from now, but the Cyclones do have a promising replacement lined up for him in three-star Perry High (Ariz.) quarterback recruit Brock Purdy, who drew scholarship offers from Alabama and Texas A&M, among other programs, before signing with Iowa State a couple of weeks ago. More importantly, Iowa State effectively removed head coach Matt Campbell from other Power 5 programs’ wish lists this winter by handing him a six-year contract extension with a big raise (from $2.1 million to $3.5 million per year) and an increased assistant salary pool.