Hey, last season … you didn’t see NCAAF teams like Kentucky being a massive factor in the SEC title chase well into November.
And … last year at this time you wouldn’t have dared to say that NCAAF teams like Pitt was going to end up in the ACC Championship, or you would’ve been pick-shamed by a social media world that frowns upon deviating from the norm.
What five NCAAF teams will be this year’s Pitt, Kentucky and Northwestern – or close to it? Who do you need to know and care about before this all gets started?
The five NCAAF teams no one is talking about but will be massive factors this college football season are …
ACC: Virginia Tech Hokies
The program won 19 games over a two-year span under head coach Justin Fuente and gave eventual national champion Clemson a heck of a run in the 2016 ACC Championship. But last season was supposed to be a bit of a rebuild, and it was certainly that.
Josh Jackson went from being a star quarterback on the 2017 team to injured and out of the mix three games into the 2018 season. Several key parts were gone off the defense, and there was work to be done across the board.
That doesn’t excuse the 49-35 loss to Old Dominion, or the defense falling off the map in the middle of the season, but it was simply a bad year with the first losing season since 1992.
Fast-forward to this season, and Jackson is a Maryland Terrapin, a few other skill players took off to pursue other football opportunities, and the offensive line only gets back two starters.
The defense still has to get past its youth movement, there has to be more of a pass rush, and …
Whatever. It was one bad year.
Everyone is back in the secondary, the linebacking corps is a rock, and the offense will be more than fine despite the departure of some of the key parts.
Those losses, though, combined with last year’s clunker, have pushed Virginia Tech out of the Coastal spotlight for Virginia – who hasn’t beaten the Hokies since the first term of the George W. Bush era – the splashy coaching changes at Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina.
No, this won’t be the team that knocks off Clemson, but there’s more experience, the special teams will be good, and the overall expectations are very, very low.
There’s no Clemson or Syracuse to face from the Atlantic, there aren’t two road games in a row, and there’s a brilliant run of five home games in a six date stretch to fatten up on.
The Miami and Virginia games are on the road, but watch out for a great start – possibly 6-1 going into the road game at Notre Dame – to wake everyone up.
Big Ten: Minnesota Golden Gophers
Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska.
The college football world is having a love affair with a team that went 4-8 last season and has massive question marks on defense coming into the season, but the offense is fun, Scott Frost is a proven head coach, and it seems like it’s just a question of time before the pivot to greatness is made.
The Huskers went 4-8 last season, but one of those wins was a 53-28 destruction of a Minnesota team that was going absolutely nowhere. It’s a new year, and while Nebraska is considered the Big Ten West’s hot thing, it might just be the Gophers who steal the show.
It’s amazing what three wins can do.
Minnesota was floundering at 4-5 – and was on a 6-12 run following a 3-0 start to the PJ Fleck era – after getting destroyed 55-31 by a miserable Illinois team. And then it all started to work.
The Gophers bounced back from the embarrassment in Champaign to hand Purdue its lunch in a 41-10 blowout. The close loss to Northwestern the following week was at least a fight, and then came the big tree to climb.
Minnesota hadn’t beaten Wisconsin since 2003 – and hadn’t won in Madison since 1994 – but it needed a victory to become bowl eligible. The team found a whole other gear as it ground out the Badgers in a dominant 37-15 win to finally take back the Paul Bunyan Axe.
It followed that up with a fantastic performance in a Quick Lane Bowl win over a Georgia Tech team trying to send its head coach Paul Johnson out in style, and now there’s reason to think Minnesota might be on to something.
This year’s team has the running game. The offensive line will be fine, the backfield is crazy-deep with talented backs, and when the passing game is going, Tyler Johnson might just be the Big Ten’s top NFL wide receiver prospect.
The defense was the biggest change over the finishing kick, allowing 15 points or fewer in three of the last four games. The 2019 linebacking corps will be a killer, the secondary has all-star talent, and as long as there’s more of a pass rush, this will be a D to look out for.
The schedule will be a big help.
The Gophers don’t have to play Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State, and they get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home. The toughest non-conference game is at Fresno State, and there aren’t any games outside of the Big Ten against Power Five teams.
Big 12: TCU Horned Frogs
Yeah, you already memory dumped the 2019 Cheez-It Bowl – possibly the worst sporting event of all-time that didn’t involve a death.
TCU managed to get by Cal 10-7, and while the bowl was the butt of too many jokes, it closed out an under-the-radar finishing kick to the Horned Frog season.
The offense didn’t work over the final ten games following the loss to Ohio State, scoring 17 points or fewer seven times and going on an ugly 2-6 run as the season started to slip away. But the Horned Frogs managed to pull off a 16-9 gut-check win at Baylor, got bowl eligible with a 31-24 victory over Oklahoma State, and finished with a winning season in the Cheez-It.
The team easily could have quit, and instead, it found a way to keep pushing.
Leave it to head coach Gary Patterson to adapt and adjust even further.
His team went 4-8 in 2013. The offensive tweaks were made, and the Horned Frogs won 23 games over the next two seasons.
The 2016 team struggled in a 6-7 season, and got to the Big 12 Championship the following season going 11-3.
This year, expect more out of an offense that has a better overall quarterback situation, a line that returns four starters, and with a passing game that should work around all-star receiver Jalen Reagor.
The secondary will be among the Big 12’s best, the run defense will be a wall, and there’s little concern over losing seven of the team’s top eight tacklers.
Texas and West Virginia have to come to Fort Worth, but road games at Purdue, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma won’t make this an easy season. But again, TCU has a way of figuring it out.
No one’s talking about the Horned Frogs now, but don’t be shocked if they make it two trips to the Big 12 Championship game in three seasons.
Pac-12: Washington State Cougars
And this comes off a year when no one was really talking about them, even though they were knee-deep in the Pac-12 title chase and alive in the College Football Playoff hunt until late November.
The early loss to USC took the Cougars off the radar and realistically killed the CFP chances, but the offense was great, the defense was underappreciated, and the team just kept on winning close games.
The Cougars slipped by Utah – when the Utes had all the parts in place. They slugged by Cal, fought through a shootout with Stanford, and rolled by Oregon, all to see it derailed in the snowy loss to Washington to miss out on a Pac-12 Championship appearance.
This season, the Pac-12 chatter is all about how loaded Oregon is, or how Washington is going to reload in a hurry, or about how the entire Pac-12 South should be a whole lot better and sharper.
Don’t sleep on Wazzu again.
The Cougars have to hope for Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud to be another Gardner Minshew, but Mike Leach always gets production out of his quarterbacks no matter what.
The receiving corps is going to be special, the offensive line will once again be fantastic in pass protection, and most of the top tacklers are back on D.
There aren’t any Power Five dates in the non-conference slate, but going to Houston will be scary enough.
There’s no USC to deal with from the South, but the Cougars have to go to Utah, Arizona State, Oregon, Cal and Washington … uh oh.
The schedule is too tough, it’ll be too hard to get through the North, and …
NCAAF Teams like The Cougars are about to make a whole lot of noise.
SEC: Missouri Tigers
To sound like a canned line from a dopey action movie, there’s nothing more dangerous than a team with nothing to lose.
Missouri was hit – very, very unfairly – with NCAA sanctions that prevent it from being eligible for the SEC Championship or a bowl game. Now the pressure is off, and look out for Barry Odom’s team to bring the fire and funk each and every week as it tries to screw up everyone else.
It all starts with the business side of the game. Kelly Bryant might not have a national championship ring – even though he was a key early part of Clemson’s run to the title – but he has the Mizzou starting quarterback job, and offensive coordinator Derek Dooley tutoring him.
It’s not about a bowl game for Bryant; it’s about using his size, talent and tools to grow into a better NFL prospect.
He’s got the talented receivers to work with, a star pro-level tight end in Albert Okwuegbunam, and a loaded group of running backs to help take the heat off. He’s also working behind a line that led the SEC in fewest sacks allowed.
Almost all of the top tacklers are back, the pass rush will be great, and Cale Garrett might just be the best linebacker you haven’t paid attention to. Add to the mix a secondary with three starters returning, and the SEC East has reason to worry about the potential of what this team can do.
The Tigers have to go to Georgia, but they don’t have to play Alabama, LSU, Auburn or Mississippi State, and they get Florida and South Carolina at home.
Can they win at Wyoming? Of course. How about at Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Arkansas? Absolutely.
NCAAF Teams: Can this be the best team in the SEC East? That’s too much of a stretch, but it can have a whole lot of fun without going to a bowl game.
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