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UCLA, Virginia, and 20 'Big-Name' College Football Programs That Need to Improve

David LutherFeatured ColumnistAugust 9, 2012

UCLA, Virginia, and 20 'Big-Name' College Football Programs That Need to Improve

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    What happens when one of the “big-name” college football programs continuously fails to live up to their status as a supposed elite program? Can their status as one of football's power programs be taken away?

    College football has always had a nebulous dividing line separating what is now the FBS into two decidedly unequal parts.

    The majority of programs reside in relative obscurity. It's not often that teams like North Texas, Western Michigan, Tulane or New Mexico State make headlines, and when they do, it's usually for something negative.

    Then there are the “big boys.” Michigan, Alabama, USC, Texas, Florida State and so on. These big-time programs find their way into the Top 25 every season, and they collectively have a stranglehold on the top 10.

    But a few of these elite programs have been failing to make the grade as of late. Improvement is necessary or slipping from the ranks of relevance is a very real possibility.

    Programs like UCLA and Virginia, who have combined for just one bowl win over the past six seasons, could find themselves on the societal chopping block soon, and they head our list of 20 other FBS programs that are in similar danger.

UCLA

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    Rich Neuheisel was supposed to be the savior of his alma mater.

    Neuheisel led the Washington Huskies to a conference title and Rose Bowl victory during the 2000 season and finished No. 3 in the final AP Poll.

    But similar success was absent at UCLA, where he was 21-29 over four seasons.

    While many Bruins fans point to UCLA's Pac-12 South Division title last season, it's a title with a mighty big asterisk. UCLA was clearly not the best team in the Pac-12-South last season, but received a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game simply by virtue of USC being ineligible.

    On top of that, the rest of the South Division was just awful in 2011.

    Only two teams—USC and Utah—finished with a record over .500, and only the Trojans combined that overall winning record with a winning conference mark.

    The fact of the matter is UCLA hasn't been a major factor in the Pac-12 since the 2005 season where the Bruins finished 10-1 (with a second loss to USC vacated by the Trojans), and there hasn't been sustained success at UCLA since the late 1980s.

    If UCLA wants to continue to be considered a big-time college football program, it's going to have to start producing in the win column.

Virginia

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    Last season was certainly a step up for the Cavaliers.

    An 8-5 record is clearly a step up from what we've been seeing from Virginia lately. But the fact that 8-5 was a surprise should tell us all a little something about how far the Cavs have fallen.

    After three straight seasons of five or fewer wins, it's nice to see head coach Mike London making some progress towards restoring the program to its former glory.

    London knows a thing or two about winning. He spent two seasons as the head coach at FCS Richmond, where he was 24-5 with a National Championship before making the short trip to Charlottesville.

    Hopefully, things continue to improve; a slip back now would only serve to reinforce the belief that Virginia is no longer a relevant team in the East.

Miami (FL)

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    The past year has been pretty trying for the Miami Hurricanes.

    In fact, since Al Golden was hired as the new head football coach, the only fortunate thing to happen to Miami is the revelation of scandals at other institutions (Ohio State and Penn State) has taken the media spotlight off the Hurricanes.

    But the 'Canes didn't exactly emerge unscathed.

    Last season's lackluster 6-6 record was just the latest chapter in utter underperformance at “The U.”

    From hyped recruits that failed to pan out to new allegations of pay-for-play, there's more than enough reason for every 'Canes fan to shake his or her head.

    The Hurricanes won nine games in 2009, and despite last season's self-imposted ban on accepting a bowl bid, the 'Canes have been a (nearly) perennial postseason staple.

    So what's the deal? Can we completely blame the recent downturn on the NCAA investigation?

    Miami is no stranger to scandal, as the program has rightfully earned its sullied reputation. This time around, however, most of the penalties handed down by the NCAA were directed at players, not the program at large.

    That means we fully expect Miami to field a competitive team in very short order.

    And so do legions of Hurricanes fans.

Texas Tech

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    It's probably safe to admit that Texas Tech doesn't quite carry the football weight as their in-state cousins, Texas and Texas A&M.

    That being said, the Red Raiders can still easily be classified as a “major” program in college football. After all, the Raiders have given us some great performances over the years, including that memorable win over Texas in 2008.

    But Texas Tech saw its 11-season bowl streak come to an end in 2011 after finishing a disappointing 5-7 (2-7).

    Head coach Tommy Tuberville is entering his third season as head coach, and any program undergoes a little “transition period” when switching leadership on that level.

    But with all of the shuffling and reshuffling of conferences, the balance of power in college football is in flux. And without some big wins, and quickly, Texas Tech could find itself quickly losing stature not only nationally, but in its own backyard.

    Something the Red Raiders definitely can't afford.

Syracuse

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    Remember the good old days when Syracuse was good at football?

    Yeah, neither do we.

    Other than 2010's 8-5 performance, the Orange haven't had a winning season since 2001. And we're light years away from those great Syracuse teams of the late '80s, early '90s.

    And to make matters worse, Syracuse is yet another program making the jump from one conference to a more competitive one; the ACC is brutal, especially when compared to the lowly Big East.

    The Orange will have one last year to hone their skills in the Big East before moving to the ACC for 2013, but the question remains if that will be enough.

    If the Orange could only manage a 1-6 conference record in the Big East, what do you suppose that record will look like against the ACC?

    If vast improvements aren't made quickly, we'll all soon find out.

Pittsburgh

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    Pitt fans love to point to the program's nine claimed national championships as proof positive that it is a major college football program.

    Accordingly, we'll treat them like one by saying the Panthers need to start acting like they belong.

    One 10-win season in the last 30 years isn't exactly the kind of stuff we expect to see from a major, nine-time national championship program.

    And last season's 6-7 certainly isn't helping change perceptions around the nation.

    There's also the added factor of some pretty major instability, with four head coaches in just a three season span (Dave Wannstedt, Michael Haywood, Todd Graham and Paul Chryst, although Haywood never actually coached a game).

    Pitt is also bolting the Big East for the ACC in 2013, and the Pathers will have one last shot to make the necessary adjustments before stepping up in class.

    But how much improvement can we expect from a program that has proven time and time again to be a disappointment?

Iowa

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    What is it with Iowa?

    For one reason or another, the Hawkeyes seem to be in a constant state of “rebuilding” the program. One has to wonder if the construction will ever be finished.

    The Hawkeyes are clearly a major football program, and they have the history to prove it. But lately, Iowa has had trouble breaking through to the top echelon of the Big Ten.

    While we've seen some decent—and even good—records posted by the Hawkeyes, they never seem to quite be able to place their names next to the Michigans, Wisconsins and Ohio States of the conference.

    After three seasons of nine or more wins (including 11 in 2009), the Hawkeyes took a step back last season in yet another “rebuilding” year, finishing 7-6.

    There are 13 returning starters for 2012—more than enough to put an improved product on the field. So let's hope it doesn't take another three years for the Iowa fans to see another top-flight Iowa team.

Texas A&M

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    It certainly is the dawn of a new era at Texas A&M.

    Not only do the Aggies have a new head coach in Kevin Sumlin, but A&M is moving into the cutthroat SEC for the 2012 season.

    We're not ready to call A&M's 2011 record of 7-6 the start of a downturn, but the SEC is a different ball of wax compared to the Big 12.

    Almost overnight, A&M went from a conference contender to a middle-of-the-road SEC program, struggling to find its way in a strange new neighborhood. And it's safe to say if the Aggies repeat last season's performance on the field, they're in for a lot worse than 7-6.

    If improvements aren't made quickly, Aggies fans may quickly come to regret their program's conference defection.

Notre Dame

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    Putting Notre Dame on a list of “teams that need to improve” is a no-brainer.

    Even head coach Brian Kelly admits there's a lot of work to be done.

    Kelly has been pretty solid in his first two seasons, finishing 8-5 both years.

    But how long will 8-5 work at Notre Dame?

    First, we'll consider the fact that Notre Dame hasn't won eight or more games in three straight seasons in 18 years.

    But will that kind of “accomplishment” really mollify the Notre Dame alumni, a decidedly finicky group that somewhat foolhardily demands national championships as if they grow on trees?

    Probably not.

    So while we can take a more detached and realistic view of the work in progress that is Notre Dame, it's clear that the pressure in on Kelly to make some improvements sooner rather than later.

Illinois

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    Illinois had us all fooled last season.

    Ron Zook got his Illini off to a quick start, and it finally looked as if he was going to deliver on his promises of Big Ten glory at long last.

    Then, reality set in, and Illinois became the first FBS program to start the season 6-0 to finish 6-6.

    About the only thing that was surprising about Zook's firing is that it took this long. After all, the Illini had been mediocre at best under Zook, who finished with a 34-51 record in Champaign.

    Tim Beckman now takes over after spending his last three seasons as head coach at Toledo. Even if Beckman doesn't wildly improve on his current .568 win percentage as a head coach, it's still an improvement from what Zook was delivering.

Florida

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    When Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer left Gainesville, it's almost like someone sucked the life out of the Florida Gators.

    There's been this collective depression for Florida fans, and the subsequent shortcomings on the field didn't help matters much.

    But Florida was good before Tebow and Meyer, and Florida has every ability to be good after, too.

    And why not start right now? The 2012 season looks to be a perfect opportunity for a program like Florida to make a move in the SEC East. While it's important to note that Florida is returning 18 starters from 2011, it's just as important to not who isn't returning.

    John Brantley never really worked out as the Florida quarterback, and it's not clear that the Florida faithful ever really bought in to the Charlie Weis way of offensive play-calling.

    Florida now has the opportunity to start anew with sophomore quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who has all the talent necessary to be successful in the SEC.

    He'll also benefit from having a wealth of experience surrounding him in his first, full-time outing as starter.

    What could be better than that?

    How about another sophomore who can perform just as well and may find himself taking the starting job away? Well, head coach Will Muschamp has that, too, in Jeff Driskel.

    Tim who?

California

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    A few seasons ago, it looked for a moment like the glory days of Cal football might be returning to Berkeley.

    The Golden Bears had recovered from an awful 1-10 season in 2001 only to win seven games in 2002. Cal won eight games in 2003 and 10 in 2004, and it looked like Jeff Tedford was really turning the program around.

    Between 2004 and 2006, Cal won 29 games and was 5-1 in bowl games from the 2003 season to 2008.

    But as the level of competition rose in the Pac-10, Cal found its fortunes decline. Almost coinciding with the rise of Oregon as a nation power, the Bears began losing games to opponents once thought inferior.

    Cal finished just 5-7 in 2010, and 7-5 in 2011. While a return to bowl eligibility is certainly an improvement, it's not quite what we were expecting given Cal's resurgence a half decade ago.

    One losing season isn't enough to think that Tedford can't get the job done, but it's clear there are some improvements necessary to stay competitive in the new-look Pac-12.

Purdue

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    When you think of Purdue football, you think of greats like Drew Brees, Jim Everett and Bob Griese.

    You don't think of the fact that Purdue hasn't won 10 games in a single season since 1979.

    In fact, the Boilermakers have averaged just under six-and-a-half wins per season over the last 11. Not exactly the type of environment from which you expect legends to emerge.

    Head coach Danny Hope, now entering his third season, has made some modest improvements thus far, and last season's upset over Ohio State was enough to stoke the coals for the future.

    But Purdue is going to need more than modest improvements to compete for a Big Ten title and BCS berth.

Arizona State

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    When the 2011 season began, there was more than enough reason for Sun Devils fans to get excited.

    Arizona State was returning 21 starters from a 2010 team that finished 6-6, but had lost four of those games by a combined nine points.

    Certainly that wealth of experience could make up nine measly points, right? And with USC again ineligible and the conference now split into divisions, it was almost inevitable that the Devils would find their way into the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game.

    But that's why they play the games.

    Despite an impressive 5-1 start, ASU finished their final seven games with a 1-6 record.

    And that was all she wrote for Dennis Erickson. Despite winning a share of the Pac-10 title in his first season at ASU (2007), Erickson finished with a 31-31 record in Tempe.

    It's now up to Todd Graham to turn things around for the program.

Ole Miss

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    There are few universities in the nation as proud of their heritage as the University of Mississippi.

    That pride unfortunately hasn't translated into wins on the gridiron as of late, and there are some serious improvements needed at Ole Miss if the Rebels ever hope to compete for a conference title in the rough-and-tumble SEC.

    Ole Miss has long been searching for the right coach to begin the resurrection of Rebels football, and the next candidate to try his hand as the job is a relative newcomer to the head coaching ranks.

    Hugh Freeze began his college coaching career at Ole Miss as the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator under Ed Orgeron. Freeze soon became the head coach in the NAIA at now defunct Lambuth University, where he was 20-5 in two seasons until the football program was shuttered shortly before the school itself folded.

    Freeze was brought on as offensive coordinator at Arkansas State for the 2010 season, and succeeded Steve Roberts, who was fired following a 4-8 finish.

    Freeze quickly turned the program into a winner, and the Red Wolves clinched the Sun Belt title with a perfect 8-0 conference mark en route to a 10-2 finish.

    Apparently, Mississippi is hoping Freeze will be able to engineer the same kind of quick turnaround in Oxford.  

Washington State

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    Eight wins is what most top programs consider a minimum for a season.

    Eight wins is also the total number of wins Washington State has accumulated over the past four seasons combined.

    Is there any doubt that the Cougars need some major improvements?

    Hiring Mike Leach as head coach was a good first step.

Mississippi State

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    Talk about sputtering out of the gate.

    At the beginning of last season, Mississippi State was expected to, at the very least, make a stand in the SEC.

    However, that stand ended a little like General Custer at Little Big Horn.

    The Bulldogs were quickly overpowered by the top teams in the conference, and by Week 5, Mississippi State was 0-3 in the SEC and had barely escaped Louisiana Tech in overtime.

    The only two conference wins the Bulldogs were able to manage were against Kentucky and Ole Miss—not exactly the best the conference has to offer.

    The upcoming 2012 season should provide a few more answers as to how Dan Mullen's career as head coach will proceed. There are more than enough starters (15) returning from last season to make a run at some of the top juggernauts in the conference.

    And with eight of those returning starters on offense, we should see an improvement over last season's offensive woes, which placed Mississippi State 84th in the FBS in total offense.

Colorado

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    If Colorado thought bolting the Big 12 for the Pac-12 was a way to become more competitive, the Buffaloes obviously found out the hard way that they were mistaken.

    After stagnating in the Big 12 for the better part of the last decade, Colorado moved west to the Pac-12, only to finish 3-10 in its first outing.

    What's really confusing—and probably quite annoying for Buffs fans—is that Colorado was relatively recently a budding national powerhouse.

    But years of stagnation and a distasteful recruiting scandal left the program gutted and downtrodden.

Maryland

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    In the early part of the last decade, Maryland was a powerhouse of the East, competing annually for conference divisional titles and even earning a BCS berth (2002 Orange Bowl).

    Then, the wheels fell completely off the Terrapins 'wagon.

    After three straight seasons of double-digit win totals, Maryland won just 10 games in 2004 and 2005 combined.

    But the real issue for Maryland has been wild inconsistency since.

    Over the past three seasons, Maryland's win totals per season have equaled two, nine and two.

    Seriously, how does that happen? Teams don't magically go from terrible to great to terrible again, do they?

    It's a sign of the times when the biggest news coverage the Terps get is focused on their uniforms.

    Randy Edsall is entering his second season as head coach, and he'll be doing it with a new staff under him. After last season's debacle, Edsall fired both his offensive and defensive coordinators, and former Maryland assistant Mike Locksley is returning to take over as OC in 2012.

    Edsall better hope these changes work, or he's going to quickly find his backside heating up.

Minnesota

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    Every conference needs a doormat, and for the last half decade or so, the Big Ten has walked all over Minnesota.

    The Golden Gophers are a shadow of their former selves, have won just seven games over the past two seasons.

    As if that wasn't bed enough, the Gophers have also lost to two FCS programs in that time and a third back in 2007.

    Is it any wonder no one in the Big Ten takes Minnesota seriously anymore?

    If Minnesota ever hopes to return to the Rose Bowl Game (last trip was a victory over UCLA following the 1961 season), there need to be some major changes to the program.

    A program with 18 Big Ten titles and six national championships shouldn't be suffering through such an extended period of futility, and if Minnesota ever hopes to emerge from the haze of obscurity, a top-down change in football culture might be necessary.

Boston College

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    There are all kinds of excuses for Boston College's pathetic 4-8 showing in 2011.

    But in reality, BC should have been adequately prepared for the loss of any personnel, coaching or otherwise.

    When offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers left the team shortly before the beginning of the season, one might expect a transition period in which the Eagles would struggle offensively.

    But that period extended throughout the entire season, and Boston College finished ranked 112th in total offense last season.

    To make matters worse, it's now fairly certain that head coach Frank Spaziani is now on the hot seat.

    Having posted a record of 20-19 during his three seasons at the helm, Spaziani could easily find himself unemployed if a quick turnaround isn't orchestrated in 2012.

    And that raises the very real possibility that Boston College would need to start their long climb out of the doldrums from scratch.

Tennessee

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    It is almost like it happened in a previous life.

    It was way back in 1998, and Tennessee had just completed their fourth straight 10-win-plus season, as well as its second straight SEC title.

    Then, the Volunteers did something no one else had ever done: win a BCS championship.

    Life after winning the first BCS title game was pretty charmed, even for a behemoth program like Tennessee. The Vols capitalized on the recruiting potential of the BCS win, and remained a strong SEC program for the next several years.

    But after 2007s 10-4 finish, Tennessee lost much of its offensive coaching staff to other programs. There were also numerous off-the-field problems.

    When the Vols dropped the season opener to unranked UCLA, followed by losses to Florida and Auburn, things went from bad to worse.

    Since that disastrous 2008 season, after which long time coach Phillip Fullmer was asked to step down, almost nothing has gone right for Tennessee.

    First, there was the abortive Lane Kiffin era—which lasted 13 months.

    Then, Derek Dooley took over after Kiffin left Tennessee high and dry in the middle of a recruiting cycle.

    The end result of all this turmoil has been three losing seasons in four years.

    So what needs to change at Tennessee?

    Much of it has already happened. First and foremost, Tennessee is regaining a sense of stability. Dooley is entering his third season as head coach, and he'll have 19 returning starters in 2012 with which to begin the hoped-for renaissance.

    Secondly, Dooley needs to convince top recruits that Tennessee is still a place capable of winning championships. With a top 20 recruiting ranking from Rivals.com for 2012, beating out fellow SECers like LSU and Arkansas, it looks like we may soon be able to check that off the list.

    And finally, the Volunteers must begin to believe that the rest of the SEC isn't a tough as popular myth would have us think.

    The SEC is king of college football, but Tennessee is part of that tradition. The truth is Tennessee is a lot closer to beating teams like Alabama and LSU than almost anyone from outside the SEC.

    A few simple changes like these, and Tennessee will soon find its name dropped from lists of big-time programs that need to improve.  

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