At the beginning of every season, the national college football conversation fixates on a few programs that could break through for banner years and maybe even crash the College Football Playoff race. But not every offseason darling pans out, whether the talent coming back regresses or the underclassmen expected to step up encounter growing pains. Several teams that opened the preseason with a respectable ranking fell flat in September and had to play catch-up the rest of the year just to make a bowl game.
A new year brings new hope, especially for the seven teams below that will be expected to bounce back after a disappointing 2018 campaign. Here’s a look at the case each can make for a rebound year and what’s on the line if the rally never comes.
The Badgers’ road back to the Big Ten title game looked simple in 2018: The West Division seemed to be devoid of challengers as long as everyone in red and white stayed healthy, and Ohio State was nowhere to be found on the schedule. Wisconsin then lost to BYU at home, were blown out by Michigan, lost at Northwestern and gave Paul Bunyan's Axe back to Minnesota for the first time in 14 years. Only a blowout of Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl secured the Badgers some dignity after they fell short of double-digit wins for the first time in four years under Paul Chryst.
Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor returns for his third (and possibly final season), and Wisconsin will be working in some new faces on a physical offensive line that blasted open running lanes for Taylor during his first two years. But the quarterback play remains the biggest issue in Madison. Any flashes of efficiency from redshirt senior Alex Hornibrook or junior Jack Coan (the two combined for a 59% completion rate, 19 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and 6.7 yards per attempt in 2018) would go a long way in wresting the division crown back from Northwestern. Depth on the defensive line should be better after injuries wrecked that group last year. Third-year coordinator Jim Leonard’s 3–4 defense should get back to its stout, fundamentally sound self.
In 2017, the Hurricanes won their first 10 games and had fans recalling the dominant teams that ruled college football two decades ago. With a dominant defense, a turnover chain and an ACC Coastal Division that presented few challengers, Miami looked poised to challenge Clemson. Then it lost its final three games.
That skid carried over to the 2018 season opener, a listless loss to LSU, and another four-game losing streak that started in mid-October doomed the Hurricanes’ hopes of ACC contention. The primary problem was anemic quarterback play, as Mark Richt played musical chairs with Malik Rosier and N’Kosi Perry. The defense was still good, forcing 25 turnovers, but the offense negated that success with 26 giveaways.
Richt abruptly retired at the end of season, leading the school to bring back defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who was just settling in as Temple’s head coach. The other side of the ball should be improved after the hiring of offensive coordinator Dan Enos from Alabama and the return of receiver Jeff Thomas. If they can win a neutral-site season opener against Florida, the Hurricanes should feel like a return to double-digit wins in 2019 is well within reach.
The Seminoles watched bowl season from home for the first time since 1981, long before any player on the roster was born, and it wasn’t too hard to figure out why. A porous 2017 offensive line did not get any better with age, and have allowed 30 or more sacks in each of the past three seasons, allowing 36 sacks in 2018, the third straight season it had allowed 30 or more sacks. That left quarterbacks Deondre Francois and James Blackman picking themselves up off the turf every other play.
New offensive coordinator Kendal Briles should have the unit moving faster, mitigating the risks of a porous O-line. His progress will be tested in Week 1 in Jacksonville against Boise State’s formidable defense.
Florida State’s motto is “Do Something”, and if Willie Taggart’s second team doesn’t live up to that mantra and at least take a competitive step forward in a conference and division currently dominated by Clemson, he could be on shaky ground entering 2020.
The Spartans stumbled to a 7–6 campaign because they couldn’t get out of their own way on offense, averaging only 18.7 points a game and ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in rushing offense, completion percentage and third-down conversions despite veteran returnees at quarterback (Brian Lewerke) and running back (LJ Scott). The offense hit rock bottom at the end of the season, failing to score more than 10 points in any of their last four games.
Lewerke returns for his senior season along with most of his offensive line and his top receiving target Cody White. The nation’s top rushing defense (77.9 yards per game) should be again be stout, with defensive tackle Raequan Williams anchoring the middle of the front seven. But October will be the crucial month for the Spartans, with road trips to Ohio State, Wisconsin and a home date with Penn State with just week off in between. Mark Dantonio has enough savvy to get his group back in the Big Ten East hunt.
USC’s offseason couldn’t have gone worse, from the dragged-out decision to keep head coach Clay Helton to the clumsy handling of newly hired offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury’s NFL courtship. Kingsbury was tabbed to be the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals before he even got a chance for fans to call for his firing.
The Trojans dipped back into the well of Texas Tech quartebacks turned rising coaches in hiring North Texas offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, but the winter’s damage had been done. Five-star wide receiver signee Bru McCoy, who had already enrolled, transferred to Texas after citing Kingsbury as a central reason he chose USC.
But despite a turbulent start to the offseason, all is not lost. JT Daniels gives the Trojans stability at the quarterback position and he enters his sophomore year with a trio of talented wideouts in Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown. A defense that couldn’t get crucial stops in the final three games of the season—losses that cratered USC’s bowl hopes—must break in new starters in the secondary and replace leaders along the front seven, but the Trojans still have enough raw talent to win the pedestrian Pac-12 South if they can survive a brutal first half: Fresno State, Stanford, at BYU, Utah, at Washington and then at Notre Dame after a week off.
Last year’s trendy Pac-12 South sleeper enjoyed a summer of sky-high expectations after the arrival of new coach Kevin Sumlin and the late-2017 emergence of quarterback Khalil Tate. The Wildcats ended the year 5–7, with an epic collapse in a 41–40 Territorial Cup loss to Arizona State keeping them from bowl eligibility.
Tate’s Heisman candidacy crashed back to Earth early on due to an ankle injury that lingered, but while his completion rate dipped below 60%, Tate still threw for 2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns for the conference’s top offense. The injury took away his biggest weapon, as his rushing yards dropped from just over 1,400 in 2017 to only 224 last fall. Getting Tate back on track and pairing him with do-it-all back J.J. Taylor, the nation’s seventh-leading rusher, will be a key offseason focus.
The defense gave up 400 or more yards in seven games last season, but the Wildcats could return as many as nine starters from that unit, anchored by potential All-America linebacker Colin Schooler. With a very manageable September, Sumlin’s second team could build some momentum heading into the teeth of Pac-12 play.
If it seems like Gus Malzahn is on the hot seat every season, it’s because he is. For Auburn fans, any season where they don’t beat Alabama or compete for a national title is equivalent to hitting rock bottom, but the 2018 season, in which the Tigers could not overcome a porous offensive line and stumbled to a 4–3 start with losses to LSU, Mississippi State and Tennessee, was especially disconcerting. Just like last year, the Tigers open with a Pac-12 opponent (this time it’s Oregon), with brutal trips to Texas A&M, Florida and LSU later on. Georgia and Alabama both come to the Plains in November.
The optimism for 2019 revolves around Malzahn, who reclaimed playcalling duties after the regular season and promptly directed a 63–14 win over Purdue in the Music City Bowl. When his spread run game is clicking—and all five O-line starters are expected back, along with the top two backs—Auburn is always a threat to compete for championships.