College Football’s 10 teams on the rise in 2020
In today’s game it’s all about maintaining consistency, but it’s challenging considering the transfer portal, recruiting wars and early departures to the NFL.
Coaches try to keep their staff intact, yet and still assistants constantly leave for bigger jobs. Schedules also play a big role in a team’s turnaround, especially in the non-conference. However, every year is a new season for fans to have hope and a reason to be optimistic.
Here are 10 Power Five teams poised for improvement this fall after they fell short of expectations in 2019.
Duke: The Blue Devils started out last year strong and won four of their first six games. However, the second half of the season Duke had an abysmal offense and the team suffered a five-game losing streak during that span. David Cutcliffe is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the FBS and hasn’t suffered back-to-back losing seasons since 2012. He’s also a quarterback guru and Duke has weapons to throw the ball to. Tight end Noah Gray made a name for himself in the league after he hauled in 51 passes, which led the Blue Devils and earned him second-team All-ACC. Cutcliffe will get the offense figured out, but on defense the Blue Devils will be one of the strongest units in the league up front. Edge rushers Chris Rumph and Victor Dimukeje form one of the best defensive end duos in the ACC and will make life hard for opposing quarterbacks. The two combined for 88 stops, 23 tackles for loss, 15 sacks and earned All-ACC honors. Duke should have no problems getting off to a fast start with the first three games against cupcakes. Not to mention games against Wake Forest, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech are at home.
Iowa State: The Cyclones started out last season ranked No. 21 in the AP Poll and were one of the favorites to win the Big 12. However, Iowa State struggled with handling lofty expectations. The team stumbled to a 7-6 campaign, including two double-digit losses to end the year. Still, the Cyclones return two-year starter Brock Purdy at quarterback. He led the Big 12 in passing yards, attempts and completions. Purdy will be throwing to arguably the best tight end in the FBS. Charlie Kolar hauled in 51 passes, had nearly 700 receiving yards and six touchdown catches last season. Not to mention wide receiver Tarique Milton averaged nearly 21 yards per reception. Running back Breece Hall had a solid true freshman year with 100-yard rushing games against Texas Tech, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas. The Cyclones’ return a stud at every level of their defense. JaQuan Bailey was injured most of last year, but is a terror off the edge. Mike Rose is a sure tackler at linebacker, who can fly from sideline to sideline. Plus Greg Eisworth is a two-time All-Big 12 performer at safety. The biggest challenge for Matt Campbell this fall will be replacing four starters on the offensive line.
North Carolina: Mack Brown showed he hasn’t lost a step after inheriting a 3-9 team. He led the Tar Heels to a seven-win season in his first year back in Chapel Hill. North Carolina was also the only team that came the close to beating Clemson during the regular season. Quarterback Sam Howell took the ACC by storm as a true freshman and led the league with 38 touchdown passes. Running back Michael Carter is coming off a 1,000-yard season, caught 21 balls out of the backfield and he’s dangerous on special teams. Wideouts Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown form one of the best wide receiver duos in the ACC. The two combined for a jaw-dropping, 123 receptions, 2,052 receiving yards and 22 touchdown catches in 2019. Chazz Surratt has been exceptional for North Carolina since switching from quarterback to linebacker. He finished second in the league with 115 tackles and earned first-team All-ACC. Surratt will set the tone for a defense that only allowed 30 total points over the Tar Heels’ final three games. Not to mention North Carolina’s schedule sets up nice, with three of the last four games at home.
Purdue: The Boilermakers were plagued by the injury bug last season, which led to their second-straight losing season. Purdue fans were feeling cheated, considering Jeff Brohm is one of the highest paid coaches in the Big Ten. However, this fall could potentially be the season that everything falls into place. After all, quarterback Jake Plummer returns after showing promise as a true freshman. Receiver Rondale Moore, who caught 114 balls in 2018 should be back fully healthy. David Bell led the Big Ten in receiving yards and tied for first in the conference with 86 catches as a true freshman. On the defensive side of the ball Purdue will be just as strong. Everything starts up front with star edge rusher George Karlaftis. The defensive end was the Boilermakers No. 1 recruit last season, earned Freshman All-American honors and second-team All-Big Ten. Behind Karlaftis is linebacker Derrick Barnes, who’s one of the best tacklers in the league and tied for first on the team in sacks. Safety Cory Trice is the playmaker in Purdue’s secondary, who picked off three passes as a freshman. With all of the returning talent the Boilermakers could be the sleeper team in the West.
USC: Clay Helton is facing yet another crucial season this fall. Still, he should feel relieved by having the best quarterback in the Pac-12. Kedon Slovis was the next man up for the Trojans after JT Daniels went down with an injury in game one. Slovis never looked back, threw for 30 touchdowns and was named the Pac-12’s Freshman Offensive Player of the Year. Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown are the best wide receiver tandem in the Pac-12. The duo combined for 151 receptions, 1,954 receiving yards and 12 touchdown catches. Slovis will be protected by Alijah Vera-Tucker, who’s one of the best offensive lineman in the conference. Offensive Coordinator Graham Harrell turned out to be a great hire by Helton and he’s a rising star among assistant coaches. Harrell will make sure USC has one of the best passing attacks in the nation. USC has some studs along the defensive line with Jay Tufele and Drake Johnson. Tufele is very versatile and one of the best interior defensive linemen in the Pac-12. Johnson wreaked havoc off the edge as a true freshman last season and had a sack in four different games. The Trojans secondary is full of talent with corners Olaijah Griffin and Isaac Taylor-Stuart. Not to mention safety Talanoa Hufanga is as physical as they come.
Texas A&M: The Aggies were a solid team the past two seasons, but you wouldn’t know it because of their tough schedule. Still, Jimbo Fisher was able to carve out 17 wins during that span. Kellen Mond is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the SEC, with 59 total touchdowns over the last two seasons. Running back Isaiah Spiller had a solid true freshman campaign, with nearly a 1,000 yards on the ground, 10 rushing scores and caught 29 balls out of the backfield. Veteran receiver Jhamon Ausbon led the Aggies with 66 catches in 2019. True sophomore tight end Jalen Wydermeyer is one of the best in the SEC and caught six touchdown passes last season. Unfortunately Texas A&M’s defense will be the team’s achilles heel. The early departure of Justin Madubuike to the NFL left a big void up front for what should be a young defensive line. Aggie fans are still waiting for Anthony Hines III to blossom into the star he was coming out of high school. Safety Demani Richardson was a bright sport for Texas A&M’s secondary as a true freshman. Colorado replaces Clemson in the non-conference slate and LSU has to travel to Kyle Field, which should result in more wins for Fisher.
Virginia Tech: Although the Hokies will have a new face at quarterback, Justin Fuente’s squad is talented across the board, especially on defense and special teams. No Bud Foster, no problem. Linebacker Rayshard Ashby is one of the nation’s best and led the ACC with 120 tackles last season. He’ll set the tone for Virginia Tech’s front seven and had a jaw-dropping, 18 total tackles in the win over North Carolina last season. Caleb Farley picked off four passes from his corner position, which tied for second in the ACC. Safety Jermaine Waller had three interceptions, including two in the win over Miami and broke up 13 passes. Senior kicker Brian Johnson will be the X factor in close games for the Hokies with his strong leg. He converted all of his 48 extra point attempts, connected on 19 field goals, including a 54-yarder against Kentucky, which was the longest of Johnson’s career. Oscar Bradburn is arguably the best punter in the ACC and a Ray Guy Award semifinalist. He averaged 46.5 yards per punt last season, which was eighth-best in the FBS and third in the conference. On top of everything Penn State, Miami and Virginia visit Lane Stadium this fall. So there’s no reason why Fuente can’t carve out nine wins with the Hokies’ schedule.
Texas: The Longhorns came into the 2019 season as a top-10 team, but underachieved drastically and limped to an 8-5 campaign. The mediocre finish is why Tom Herman fired Defensive Coordinator Todd Orlando. He also got rid of Pass Game Coordinator Drew Mehringer and Receivers Coach Corby Meekings was forced to take an administrative role. Not to mention Herman removed the Offensive Coordinator responsibilities from Tim Beck. Which makes for a very crucial year four for Herman. Still, quarterback Sam Ehlinger is back for his senior season and he’s poised to break a couple of school records. Ehlinger will once again be a Heisman candidate, but he won’t have the supporting cast of receivers with Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay now on NFL rosters. He’ll have the opportunity to hand the ball off to bruising running back Keontay Ingram, who led the Longhorns in rushing last season. Junior offensive tackle Samuel Cosmi has 25 career starts and will anchor the offensive line to make sure Ehlinger stays upright. Texas’ defense will be the team’s strength. TaQuon Graham moved from the edge to the interior on the defensive line. Joseph Ossai moved up from his linebacker position and will play defensive end. Ballhawk D’Shawn Jamison will lead the Longhorns’ secondary. A win on the road at LSU will do wonders for Texas and establish momentum for the rest of the season.
Pittsburgh: Pat Narduzzi will be fielding his best team to date. Everything starts with the big boys up front on offense led by All-ACC center Jim Morrissey. The team captain didn’t allow a single sack last season for the Panthers. Quarterback Kenny Pickett will be operating behind Morrissey and threw for over 3,000 yards. However, Pickett will have a new group of receivers this fall. On the defensive side of the ball Pittsburgh has a boat load of talented players. Edge rusher Patrick Jones had a sack in four different games last season, including two apiece against Duke and Miami. Defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman is arguably the best at his position in the entire FBS. Twyman earned first-team All-ACC and second-team All-America honors after a monster 2019 season, with a sack in six different games. Paris Ford will once again hold down the secondary after leading the Panthers in tackles and interceptions. He’s a ferocious hitter, who excels in run support, pass coverage and earned first-team All-ACC honors. Pittsburgh’s schedule is very favorable, with Notre Dame being the only top-10 team on it and once again there’s no Clemson on the slate.
West Virginia: It was tough sledding in Neal Brown’s first season in Morgantown. The Mountaineers suffered a five-game losing streak that extended the entire month of October through the first week of November. However, West Virginia did win four games against Power Five competition, which was enough to show promise for the 2020 season. Everyone knows Brown is a defensive-minded coach and he has two studs up front to build his team around this fall. Darius and Dante Stills both earned All-Big 12 honors and are as versatile as they come in terms of defensive linemen. The brother combined for 72 tackles, 26 stops behind the line of scrimmage and 14 sacks in 2019. The Mountaineers’ defense allowed 20 or fewer points in four of the final five games. That speaks volumes because the team face high-flying offenses in the Big 12 every week. Another big reason for West Virginia’s projected improvement is the lighter schedule this fall. The season-opener against the Seminoles on a neutral field is very winnable, considering they’ll be breaking in a new coach. Four of the next five games are at home, plus Oklahoma and Baylor come to Morgantown. Don’t be surprised if Brown pulls out eight wins by the end of the regular season.