They may not always be easy to predict, but surprising turnarounds can be found everywhere in college football. Since the start of the BCS era in 1998, at least one team has improved from two wins or fewer to .500 or better the following year. Last year, Georgia Southern and Baylor both went to (and won) bowl games after posting a total of three wins between them in 2017, and in ’17 three teams jumped up to six or more wins after finishing ’16 in their conference basements.
Twelve teams won two or fewer games last fall. Who will produce 2019’s most surprising improvements? SI’s college football writers attempted to make the case for one potential turnaround candidates below.
Joan Niesen: Arkansas (2018 record: 2–10)
This is not a case of last year's team being better than its record—the Razorbacks were genuinely bad, losing to Colorado State and North Texas before going 0–8 in SEC play—but rather of a second-year coach getting a grip on things. Chad Morris gets his former SMU quarterback, Ben Hicks, for a season as a graduate transfer, and he pulled in the No. 23 recruiting class this winter, up from No. 43 a year ago. Plus, Arkansas's non-conference schedule will likely give it some padding: it gets San Jose State, which won one game last year, along with a downtrodden Western Kentucky, FCS Portland State and Colorado State. As Morris’s spread gains traction, the Razorbacks just might have the stuff to muster the two SEC victories they should need to get to six wins and a bowl.
Ross Dellenger: North Carolina (2018 record: 2–9)
Mack Brown hasn't coached since 2013 and will turn 68 by the time the season kicks off, but the ACC Coastal Division is there for the taking (as evidenced by last year’s champion, 7–6 Pitt), the schedule is suitable (the Tar Heels play one team that finished in last year’s top 25: Clemson) and Brown's got quite a good history in Chapel Hill (20–3 his last two seasons there in 1996–97). So, y'all jump on the Mack Train now—not for any championships or, even, division titles—but for the ole two-win to six-win turnaround.
Laken Litman: Central Michigan (2018 record: 1–11)
After four consecutive bowl appearances, Central Michigan went a program-worst 1–11 in 2018 and promptly fired coach John Bonamego. The Chippewas ranked at or near the bottom of every offensive category, lacking explosiveness (they had one play of 40 yards or more all season) and the ability to move the ball downfield and score (15.0 points per game in 2018). In December, Jim McElwain was hired, which was a good step given the former Florida head coach and Michigan assistant's experience rebuilding a Group of Five program. In 2012, he was hired at Colorado State after four seasons as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator that yielded two national championships. He took the Rams from 4–8 in his first season to 10–3 in his final one. In Gainesville, he led the Gators to two SEC title games before being fired in the middle of the 2017 season.
So why should there be reason for optimism at Central Michigan? McElwain has a clean slate in a state he’s familiar with, previously making a stop at Michigan State (2003–05) before spending last season in Ann Arbor. He inherits a quarterback competition with at least seven guys battling for the position. This includes incumbent Tommy Lazarro, who completed less than 50% of his passes his junior year for 711 yards with five touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and two-time transfer (by way of Tennessee and Houston) Quinten Dormady. Whoever wins the job will be protected by an offensive line that returns five starters but needs improvement after allowing 36 sacks last fall. Defensively, the Chips could be losing their most productive lineman in Mike Danna (9.5 sacks), who entered the transfer portal this offseason. McElwain signed 23 players to the 2019 recruiting class, too, including nine three-star offensive players. Suffice to say that after hitting rock bottom like the Chips did, don’t be surprised if McElwain can get the most out of his players by shaking things up and creating a tougher, more disciplined environment.
Eric Single: Georgia State (2018 record: 2–10)
As Georgia Southern’s eight-win improvement in 2018 (to 10–3 from 2–10 in ’17) should have taught us, the safest bet in the turnaround projection game is the Sun Belt, where only a few programs have the talent level and stability to be consistently good while the others ride a roller coaster where anybody can beat anybody on a given week. The depth just isn’t there. Georgia State experienced how fast things can take a turn for the worse last year, when it went from Cure Bowl champions to the bottom of the conference standings. The Panthers came in among the bottom 30 of SB Nation writer Bill Connely’s returning production rankings that year; this offseason, they’re in the top 30, with 73% of their 2018 production expected back. Maybe senior quarterback Dan Ellington and senior running back Tra Barnett can provide some continuity for an offense looking toward Cornelius McCoy, Devin Gentry and Tamir Jones to step up in place of Penny Hart, who left early for the draft.
The returning coaching staff is more concerning: With the departure of offensive coordinator Travis Trickett for West Virginia, head coach Shawn Elliott will be breaking in four new on-field coaches. But GSU might see Appalachian State and Troy fall back to the pack after losing their coaches to Power 5 jobs at Louisville and West Virginia, and Coastal Carolina and Texas State are breaking in new hires, too. Anything can happen in the Sun Belt, and we mean anything.
Scooby Axson: North Carolina (2–9)
UNC does have talent returning with four offensive line starters and a trio of talented running backs. The biggest question is on defense, a unit that gave up 34 points and nearly six yards per play.
The Tar Heels reaching bowl eligibility isn’t all that unrealistic considering the state of the Coastal Division and the 2019 schedule. North Carolina plays four of its first five games at home, and even with Miami, South Carolina and Clemson coming to Chapel Hill in the first month, they should be able to scrounge together six wins.