NCAA Football

Ten college football programs set to surge in 2017

Written by Andrew Kulha

Every season in college football, it seems like many of the same schools find themselves at or near the top.

Alabama is arguably one of the best dynasties in sports history and schools like USC, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Clemson and Florida State — among many others — are generally expected to accomplish big things on a season-to-season basis.

Sure, there’s always an ebb and flow — for instance, Texas was a long-time college football power before losing a step these past few years — but generally, the college football “blue bloods” are blue bloods for a reason.

The aforementioned ebb and flow is part of why we love the game, though, because you never know how things are truly going to play out from season to season.

Teams that were “down” in 2016 may find themselves surging in 2017. Other teams may find themselves on the cusp of greatness after solid 2016 seasons that ultimately fell just a bit short in the bowl season.

With that said, expect these 10 teams to make a significant impact on the 2017 college football season.

Baylor 

In his one season as interim head coach, Jim Grobe led Baylor to a 7-6 record, and that included a 31-12 win over Boise State in the Cactus Bowl. Considering all the turmoil surrounding the program after a summer of sexual assault scandals and the firing of Art Briles, the fact that Baylor ended the season with a bowl win was somewhat miraculous.

Still, the Bears did lose six games in a row to end the regular season, and they only won three games against Big 12 opponents. So it’s not as if new head coach Matt Rhule is inheriting a juggernaut.

Baylor has fallen, without a doubt, and some would say for good reason.

There is hope in Waco, though. It comes in the form of the former Temple coach. Rhule was great with the Owls, going 28-23 in four seasons. He started off slow with a 2-10 season in 2013 followed by a 6-6 season in 2014, but Temple went 10-4 in 2015 with a loss in the Boca Raton Bowl and 10-3 this season. Rhule got Temple to the AAC Championship game each of the last two seasons, with the Owls beating Navy, 34-10, to win the AAC for the first time. Ironically, it was Rhule’s last game for Temple.

He’s obviously a good coach and he’ll have plenty of Big-12 worthy talent to pick from on the recruiting trail in his own backyard down in Texas.

With more talent at his disposal and a program dedicated to winning, it wouldn’t be surprising if Rhule got off to a hot start with Baylor in year one.

FAU

Lane Kiffin is a controversial name in college football for a few different reasons, but without a doubt, he gets the headlines. And that’s great news for Florida Atlantic University, which has to play in a very game Conference USA, and recruit in a state that’s dominated by Florida and Florida State. Not to mention, just about every other major program in college football making recruiting stops down there as well.

Kiffin is a big-name with a big reputation, and that alone will get FAU in the living rooms of top recruits across the state. At the very least, Kiffin will have a chance to make a pitch.

It will take some time for him to truly implement his system, but keep in mind, he’s a coach with both NFL and big-time college football experience. He won a championship with Alabama last season and brought the Crimson Tide to the doorstep of another title in 2016.

He may have sputtered out at USC, but his resurgence at Alabama has been a revelation. He can be a big-time play-caller, and under the smaller lights at FAU, he should be able to thrive as a head coach.

With Kiffin at the helm, look for FAU to make noise in the C-USA in 2017 and for many years to come.

Michigan State

Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State Spartans went 3-9 this season. This was easily the worst record he’s put up since taking over the reigns in East Lansing. Previously, his worst outing was a 6-7 season in 2009. That season of mediocrity was immediately followed up by a run that saw MSU dominate the Big Ten and work its way all the way up to the College Football Playoff in 2015.

Sure, the Spartans were absolutely dominated by Alabama, but who isn’t dominated by the Tide? The outcome of that CFP semi-final didn’t take away the effectiveness of a six year run that saw MSU win the Big Ten multiple times as well as four-straight bowl games — including the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl.

So yeah, losing seasons have been rare in East Lansing lately, which makes it easy to predict that the Spartans will bounce-back in 2017.

Dantonio always runs a hard-nosed program that focuses on a tough running game and an even tougher defense. Those type of schemes don’t go out of style — especially in the Big Ten. He’s also generally found a way to get the best out of his players. And in the past, when MSU played with a chip on its shoulder, the Spartans have been hard to beat.

2017 will be a bounce-back year for MSU.

Western Michigan

Let’s stay in Michigan for this one, but that’s really the only thing in common between 2016’s MSU football team and the Western Michigan Broncos.

P.J. Fleck’s Broncos rowed the boat to a undefeated regular season, a MAC title and a berth in a NY6 game, something that was truly amazing for a non-Power 5 team.

Courtesy of USA Today ImagesUnfortunately for Western Michigan, the Broncos ran into a very tough Wisconsin team in the Cotton Bowl and they ended up losing. Still, WMU gave the Badgers a fight and they certainly have nothing to be ashamed of. Trailing 17-7 at halftime, Western came back in the second half and gave Wisconsin a run for its money. The Badgers ended up winning, 24-16, but Fleck’s Broncos took them all the way to the wire.

Western Michigan proved it could play on the big stage and Fleck continues to prove that he’s one of the elite coaches in college football. He may not be in Kalamazoo much longer, because eventually a big-time program will come calling, but 2017 could be the year that Western Michigan puts it all together again. It wouldn’t be wise to count this program out in a second-straight major bowl game.

WMU as a NY6 bowl game winner in 2017? That would not be a surprising headline.

Oregon

It’s time for Oregon to get back on the winning track, and new head coach Willie Taggart may be just the right guy to do it.

The good news for Taggart in 2017 is that he simply just needs to focus on coaching. Recruiting will take care of itself at Oregon. The Ducks have one of the best brands in college football, and as long as Taggart can prove himself to be competent in year one, Oregon will be just fine.

And the thing is, Taggart is more than competent. He’s proven himself to be a darn good coach so far.

From 2010-12 he started to lay the groundwork for Western Kentucky. For the past few seasons he’s been making some noise at South Florida. He went 4-8 in his first season, but he led the Bulls to a 8-5 record and a bowl game in 2015, and they were 10-2 and on a four-game winning streak before Oregon came calling on Taggart to replace Mark Helfrich.

At Oregon, Taggart will be coaching some of the best athletes in the nation, and he’ll have one of the biggest brands in the world (Nike) behind him.

Expect Oregon to get back on track in 2017.

South Carolina

Courtesy of USA Today Images

South Carolina finished the 2016 season on a two-game losing streak — with losses to Clemson and USF (Birmingham Bowl) — but it’s not hard to see that Will Muschamp has some good things going on in Columbia.

First and foremost is his quarterback, Jake Bentley.

Midway through the season and looking at a 4-2 record to start off his tenure with South Carolina, Muschamp gave the keys of the offense to Bentley, a true freshman. The Gamecocks finished the season 4-2, with wins over Tennessee and Missouri. Then they lost to USF in a 46-39 overtime thriller. Bentley threw for 390 and three touchdowns, though he did also throw two picks.

Still, the Bentley era at South Carolina projects to be exciting, and with an offseason under his belt as “the guy,” 2017 could end up being a breakout year for the Gamecocks’ signal-caller.

Factor in Muschamp, who’s a great recruiter, and South Carolina looks to be quickly on the rise.

UCLA

Josh Rosen truly hit the sophomore slump in 2016, throwing for 10 touchdowns and five interceptions before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Rosen’s forgettable season translated to a rough one for UCLA as well. The Bruins missed bowl eligibility and went 4-8 overall. That included a four-game losing streak in the heart of the season, and a 36-14 loss to rival USC at home.

If you’re looking for a bounce back team in 2017, though, look no further than UCLA.

First, Jim Mora has proven to be one of the more effective coaches in college football during his stint with the Bruins. He’s 41-24 overall, and his worst season before 2016 was a 8-5 campaign in 2015.

Second, remember that Rosen was nicknamed “Chosen Rosen” for a reason. Despite a terrible 2016, Rosen still has the potential to be one of the best quarterbacks in college football. He threw for 3,670 yards and 23 touchdowns (11 interceptions) his freshman season, so it wouldn’t be surprising if 2017 was truly a breakout year for the soon to be junior.

Lastly, the hiring of Jedd Fisch as offensive coordinator could be huge for UCLA. Fisch coached quarterbacks and wide receivers and was the passing game coordinator for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan the past two seasons. And the Wolverines boasted some of the best quarterback and offensive play in college football at times under his watch.

With USC looking to re-establish itself as the power in the Pac-12, look for UCLA to step up and provide some resistance in 2017.

Pittsburgh

The 2016 season was a mixed bag for Pitt. The Panthers started the season off 5-2 with a win over rival Penn State and then lost two in a row to Virginia Tech and Miami. Pat Narduzzi’s team then on the road to Clemson — the team playing Alabama in this year’s national championship (for the second season in a row) — and beat the Tigers, 43-42, before finishing the regular season with two more wins, and then losing to Northwestern in the Pinstripe Bowl.

So yeah, mixed bag seems to be the appropriate way to describe Pitt’s 2016 season.

For all the ups and downs, though, one thing is certain: Narduzzi is quickly becoming one of the best coaches in college football. With a solid grasp of the recruiting trail complimenting his hard-nosed philosophies and stingy defenses, Pitt could very-well take the next step and be a title contender in the ACC in 2017.

Don’t believe it? Just ask Clemson.

Penn State

Penn State finished the 2016 season in the first days of 2017, which points to just how good of a year it was for the Nittany Lions. Unfortunately, the campaign ended in a Rose Bowl thriller that felt more like a heartbreaker for PSU fans. Up 49-35 heading into the fourth quarter, Penn State couldn’t find a way to score again in the game’s final frame, and USC made an epic comeback to win, 52-49.

It was an instant classic, but undoubtedly not the ending James Franklin and his team were hoping for.

Still, 2016-17 was a wild success for Franklin, who started the season firmly on the hot seat. His Nittany Lions finished the season with an 11-3 record, a Big Ten championship win and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Penn State was one of the hottest teams in college football, entering the Rose Bowl on a nine-game winning streak. And there was a small argument that could have been made that PSU at least deserved a mention as a potential CFP team over Ohio State, which lost to Clemson in the semi-finals, 31-0.

Franklin is a tremendous coach and he’s starting to put things together in Happy Valley. He’s also a tremendous recruiter, so talent will continue to flood his sideline.

With quarterback Trace McSorley coming back and Franklin finally finding his stride, it’s very likely Penn State could find itself contending for a national championship in 2017. At the very least, look for the Nittany Lions to be among the favorites heading into the season.

Washington

In just his third season as head coach of the Washington Huskies, Chris Petersen led UW to the CFP. And yes, the Huskies did lose to Alabama, but honestly, most programs do end up losing to Alabama. It wasn’t an indictment on Petersen’s team as much as it was a testament to Nick Saban’s dynasty.

Still, these facts remain: Petersen is 27-14 as head coach at Washington, and that includes the 12-2 outing in 2016. He was 92-12 in eight seasons at Boise State, so at this point the writing is on the wall — he is one of the best coaches in college football.

Now couple Petersen’s abilities with the talent he has coming back in 2017. Mainly focus on the offensive side of the ball for now, which boasts soon to be junior quarterback Jake Browning (3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns) and running back Myles Gaskin, who rushed for 1,373 yards and 10 touchdowns in his sophomore season.

With strong recruiting backing him up and those two stars on offense leading the way, Washington could be set up for another run at the CFP, and if things break just right, another shot at the crown.

About the author

Andrew Kulha